Folks Canceled Sammy Davis Jr. — but It’s Time to Reinstate Him
Thirty years after his death, the entertainer has been forgotten or dismissed — yet, he dared to live his life in defiance of expectations
He stands onstage, a cigarette in one hand and a microphone in the other, impeccably dressed in a black tuxedo and matching bow tie. It’s the mid-1960s, and the nation is on edge. Black Americans are combating disenfranchisement in the South, often facing violence and arrest; in Harlem and Watts, frustrated by police brutality and rampant poverty, they’re rioting. White supremacy and anti-Semitism are on the rise, with George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party attracting national attention. Tensions between White and Black seem fit to boil over.
Enter Sammy Davis Jr., a thirtysomething Black man, a rich and successful entertainer, and a convert to Judaism.
“I’m colored, Jewish, and Puerto Rican,” Davis tells the audience. He pauses for a beat before delivering the kicker: “When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out!”
The overwhelmingly White audience laughs and applauds, relieved to be off the hook, happy to be in on the joke. Ain’t racism a gas?
Sammy Davis Jr. was called a lot of things throughout his lifetime in show business. The world’s greatest entertainer. The greatest entertainer who ever lived. Mr. Entertainment. Golden Boy.
Also: Nigger. Uncle Tom. Sellout.
Thirty years after his death from throat cancer, Davis has been either forgotten by the American public or dismissed as a relic from another time, an anachronism, a five-foot-five stain on African-Americans’ long struggle for civil rights. But today, with race relations at lows not seen since the 1960s, and Americans drawing widening lines in racial, political, and religious sands, is the time right to reevaluate Davis’ legacy?
My relationship with Davis began in the late 1990s, nearly 10 years after his death. I was a teenager, living, at that time, in a small town in southwest Colorado. I was the son of an…