50 years ago, Sammy Davis Jr at center of racial divide

Tue Jul 13, 2010 8:24am BST

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Fifty years ago this week, Sammy Davis Jr. was roundly booed during the opening ceremony of the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. The incident was one of the saddest moments in the entertainer's life and pointed up the deep racial divide that was threatening to rip apart the Democratic Party and the country.

It was July 11, 1960, and in two days the convention would nominate John F. Kennedy as the Democrats' presidential nominee. It had been hot and smoggy that day as 7,000 delegates began pouring into the Sports Arena downtown. The convention was called to order promptly at 5 p.m., and after the invocation, everyone stood as the color guard presented the flag -- the first with 50 stars presented at a national political convention as Hawaii had been admitted to the Union 11 months earlier.

Then came the introduction of the Hollywood celebrities who were packed into the crowded hall as guests of the convention. Three of the five-member Rat Pack were there: Davis, Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford. Tony Curtis and his wife, Janet Leigh, were on hand, as was Nat "King" Cole, Shirley MacLaine, Lee Marvin, Edward G. Robinson, Hope Lange, Lloyd Bridges and Vincent Price.

Everyone was greeted with cheers except Davis, who was booed by many of the white Southern delegates -- not because he was unpopular but because he was engaged to a white woman, Swedish actress May Britt. A headline over a New York Times story the next day read, "Delegates Boo Negro."

After the booing subsided, Sinatra came over and put his hand on Davis' shoulder. "Those dirty sons of bitches," he told his pal. "Don't let 'em get to you."

But it did get to Davis. With tears welling up, he asked Sinatra: "What did I do to deserve that?"

With Davis looking on, Sinatra then sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" under a lone spotlight shining from the rafters as if from heaven. Frank's daughter Nancy later recalled that this was one of her father's "proudest moments," but when he sang the last line, it must have been a moment tinged with irony as well.

After Davis left the rostrum, a reporter, noting that Cole had not been booed when he was introduced, asked Davis why he thought so many of the Southern delegates had booed him. "You know as well as I why they booed," he said.

In 1960, 17 Southern states -- all the former slave states plus Oklahoma -- still enforced anti-miscegenation laws, which prohibited marriage between whites and blacks. The Supreme Court didn't strike down those laws until 1967. (Barack Obama's mother and father were wed in Hawaii on February 2, 1961, just two weeks after JFK was inaugurated. They couldn't have gotten married in the South.)

America was a nation divided in 1960, and so too was the Democratic Party. Black students that year had launched a wave of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters all across the South, and many Southerners were looking for a presidential candidate who would hold back the tide of the growing civil rights movement. And in the South in the '60s, the Democratic Party was the party of segregation -- the party of George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Orval Faubus and Strom Thurmond. In those days, when "The Ed Sullivan Show" featured black performers such as Davis, Lena Horne or Cole, some CBS stations in Mississippi would go to dead air during their acts. No newspaper in the country would mention it.

On July 10, 1960 -- the day before Davis was booed -- JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. appeared together at an NAACP rally at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. Kennedy was hooted at when he took the stage by many of the 7,000 blacks in attendance because during the campaign, he spoke before segregated audiences. But when JFK finished his speech, in which he vowed to end segregation, he was wildly cheered. And after Kennedy spoke, King took the stage and brought the crowd to its feet with a refrain that three years later would echo through the ages in his "I Have a Dream" speech. "We have a determination to be free in this day and age," King told the cheering crowd at the Shrine. "We want to be free everywhere, free at last, free at last!"

Two days later, JFK pushed through a civil rights plank of the party platform that called for the end of segregation. King called it "the most positive, dynamic and meaningful civil rights plank that has ever been adopted by either party."

Davis' humiliation, and the nation's shame, didn't end that hot summer night in Los Angeles during the Democratic convention. He'd met Britt just a few months earlier in Las Vegas while filming "Ocean's Eleven," and they planned to wed that October. But because JFK had been so publicly linked to the Rat Pack -- one of its members, Lawford, was Kennedy's brother-in-law -- Jack's powerful and ambitious father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was worried that Davis' marriage to a white woman on the eve of the November election might cost his son votes.

So word was passed down to Davis to postpone the wedding until after the election. The entertainer reluctantly agreed, and after Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Joe Kennedy made sure that Davis and May weren't invited to the inaugural ball, which was co-produced by Sinatra and Lawford. It was another hurt Davis never forgot.

The civil rights plank put forth by Kennedy at the convention a half-century ago would become the blueprint for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in public places. Kennedy and King wouldn't live to see the changes that would result, but change would come. And King could see it coming. In 1964, he made a startling prediction: "I think," he told the BBC, "we may be able to get a Negro president in less than 40 years." He was only off by four years. Davis didn't live to see that either.

(David Robb is a regular contributor to The Hollywood Reporter and the author of an upcoming book about the 1960 election.)

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