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

Tue Jul 13, 2010 3:24am EDT
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By David Robb

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.   Continued...