A popular African American entertainer, Sammy Davis, Jr. lent his fame and talents to several events in support of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Born in New York City to vaudeville performers Elvera Sanchez and Sammy Davis, Sr., Davis, Jr. was performing on stage at the age of three. Early in his career, Davis played the club circuit with the Will Mastin Trio, a vaudeville company. As a solo act, Davis found success in motion pictures, music, and on Broadway in the popular Mr. Wonderful (1956) and Golden Boy (1960s). Throughout the sixties, he was a prominent member of the acclaimed ‘‘Rat Pack.’’
On 27 January 1961, Davis, along with fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin joined other notable performers such as Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, and Tony Bennett at New York City’s Carnegie Hall for a ‘‘Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.’’ Advertised as a ‘‘tribute to the greatest civil rights leader to emerge in the South since the Civil War,’’ the event raised over $50,000, a large portion of which was donated to the SCLC (‘‘Tribute to King,’’ 27 January 1961). Davis also performed at the King-headlined ‘‘Freedom Rally’’ in Los Angeles on 18 June 1961, and at the March on Montgomery in 1965. In a 1961 letter to Davis, King thanked the entertainer for his support and spoke of the changing role of black artists in the civil rights movement: ‘‘Not very long ago, it was customary for Negro artists to hold themselves aloof from the struggle for equality … Today, greats like Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Mahalia Jackson, and yourself, of course, are not content to merely identify with the struggle. They actively participate in it, as artists and as citizens, adding the weight of their enormous prestige and thus helping to move the struggle forward’’ (King, 28 March 1961).
Davis similarly admired King’s work, and in an interview with Alex Haley in 1966, Davis proclaimed: ‘‘I would give him my good eye. That’s what I think of Dr. King. He’s one of the great men of our time. They should retire the Nobel Peace Prize with his name on it’’ (Davis, 487).
In 1968, Davis received the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his best-selling 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can. He was widely criticized in 1972 for supporting President Richard Nixon before withdrawing his support during the Watergate scandal. Davis continued to perform until his death from throat cancer in 1990.
Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader, ed. Early, 2001.
King to Davis, 28 March 1961, MLKP-MBU.
‘‘Tribute to King,’’ 27 January 1961, JWBP-DMBCH.