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May 16: Sammy Davis, Jr.

Lawrence Bush
May 16, 2010

sammydavisjrSammy Davis, Jr., a nightclub performer and recording star who converted to Judaism at age 28 in 1954, died on this date in 1990. Davis was the son of a Cuban woman and African-American man, both of them vaudeville dancers; his father separated from his mother and took him on tour as a performer when he was three. He rose to stardom in the 1950s and joined Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” (Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and other performers and party animals). By refusing to take the stage in venues that practiced racial segregation, Davis almost singlehandedly integrated the Las Vegas and Miami Beach nightclub scenes. His conversion to Judaism, spiritually inspired following a car accident that cost him an eye, helped make Davis an iconic figure in the Jewish community, an embodiment of the “black-Jewish alliance” of the Civil Rights era. His marriage in 1960 to Swedish actress May Britt made him a target of extreme racism at a time when interracial marriage was forbidden in 31 states (he was even disinvited from performing at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball). Davis marched on Washington in the 1963 Civil Rights March and, despite endorsing and hugging President Richard Nixon in 1970, persisted as a supporter of progressive causes, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in the 1980s. To see him singing and dancing, look below.

“You always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear.” —Sammy Davis, Jr.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.