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November 13: The Intermarriage

Lawrence Bush
November 13, 2016
Sammy Davis Jr. married May Britt at a star-studded wedding on this date in 1960 — a “mixed race” marriage that evoked an enormous racist reaction at a time when such marriages were illegal in thirty-one American states. Davis was confronted by Nazi fascists while performing in London; 20th Century Fox declined to renew Britt’s contract as an actress; John F. Kennedy disinvited Davis from performing at his presidential inauguration. Davis was 34, Britt was 26. The marriage rites were performed by Rabbi William M. Kramer of Hollywood’s Temple Israel, who had trained her for conversion. Davis had converted to Judaism in 1954, which helped make him a symbol of the black-Jewish civil rights alliance. The couple divorced amicably in 1968. To see Sammy Davis dancing with James Brown (!), look below. “His conversion to Judaism . . . arose from self-scrutiny during his convalescence from the 1954 car crash. His family was Baptist and until then he had thought little of religion, but he studied Judaism deeply, concluded ”it teaches justice for everyone,’ and found ‘an affinity” between Jews and blacks, who have both ‘been oppressed for centuries.’ ” --Peter B. Flint, New York Times

​​​​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.