When Hollywood’s Sammy Davis was humiliated by JFK, others for marrying a white woman

Mildred Europa Taylor September 07, 2020
Sammy Davis and wife, May Britt. Source: Bettman/Corbis

You may recall the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia in which Virginia couple Richard and Mildred Loving, who married in Washington, D.C., in 1958, were arrested in their home for having violated the state’s ban on interracial marriage. The couple were forced to move away or be jailed and spent years fighting the racist law that affected them until the Supreme Court unanimously overturned it.

Before this case was decided on June 12, 1967, black-white romantic relationships were seen as illegal and a social taboo. Hollywood had then shown discomfort with interracial couples, that it was unable to handle such interracial relationships and deal with the reality of interracial love in its movies.

So you can imagine how all hell broke loose when Hollywood’s favorite Sammy Davis announced in 1960 that he was getting married to May Britt, a 26-year-old Swedish actress. It was not as if the black entertainer didn’t know what he was getting into. Three years before, his romance with white movie star Kim Novak didn’t end well, as he had to face threats from studio boss Harry Cohn.

“They said they would break both of his legs, put out his other eye, and bury him in a hole if he didn’t marry a black woman right away,” Arthur Silber, a close friend and companion of Davis, recounted. “He was scared as hell, same as I was.”

But all those threats couldn’t stop a man in love. Some three years after his divorce with Loray White, a black singer, Davis once again opted for a white woman. When he met Britt while having lunch at 20th Century Fox, she was filming a remake of The Blue Angel.

After the two started a romantic relationship, Davis proposed marriage, and Britt, who did not see what was so terrible about marrying from another race, agreed, and then her troubles began.

On June 6, 1960, when Davis announced their engagement in England, “the public went mad,” Burt Boyar, a close friend who co-wrote Davis’s autobiography, said in an interview cited by the Smithsonian.

“…the studio immediately canceled Britt’s contract. They assumed that she was no use in the box office married to a black man,” Boyar said.

The day after announcing their engagement, Davis was racially attacked while performing in London. “Go home n*r”, were some of the racial slurs British fascists used on him, with Davis later describing the scene as “the most savage racial attack I have come across.”

Hate mail — from both Whites and Blacks — followed Davis when he went back to America. At theaters in Reno, San Francisco, and Chicago where he performed, there were bomb threats. These death threats became intense that he had to hire 24-hour armed guards, and the rare times he stepped out with his wife, he “carried a gun or a cane with a knife concealed in the tip,” according to the report by Smithsonian.

Having campaigned for John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign, Davis and Britt were invited to Kennedy’s inauguration gala but three days to the event, the president uninvited them.

“The move was political—the president-elect had won the election by a slim margin and he didn’t want to alienate Southern congressmen by presenting them with Davis’s controversial marriage,” the report by Smithsonian explained.

Kennedy snubbed the interracial couple again in 1963 when they showed up at a White House reception for African-American leaders. “Get them out of here,” Kennedy allegedly told his aides.

Through all these struggles, their marriage prevailed, and it would take seven years before it became legal following the 1967 Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia.

But a year after this landmark ruling, Davis and Britt divorced. “…Not being home a great deal of the time, traveling around the world to fill performing dates had a lot to do with it,” Davis, who had been instrumental in bringing social change during the civil rights movement, said then of his marriage.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 7, 2020


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