Sammy Davis Jr.’s 1967 Guest Column: Facing Racism and Overcoming ‘Second-Class Citizenship’

Sammy Davis Jrs 1967 Variety Guest Column
Everett Collection / Everett Col

The public often assumes that if celebrities are rich and famous, their lives must be trouble-free. Actually, lots of showbiz horror stories negate that, but they’re usually about addiction and/or self-destruction. In 1967, Sammy Davis Jr. offered an insightful guest column about the everyday problems that he and others faced as Black people in America.

In the 1960s, America seemed on the brink of a second civil war, as people were divided about the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, police brutality, drug use, the White House versus the media, and more. It was a world similar to 2020.

Davis said in 1967, “The nightmare we all face has had a massive impact on all our lives and none of us, Black or white, will walk away from this time without being scarred by its enormous effects upon the moral and physical well-being of democracy.”

Davis was in London working on the film “Salt and Pepper,” and said Europeans only wanted to talk about what was happening in the U.S. He wrote that as a Black man, “I know the feeling of frustration which surges inside when only color stands between you and the proper respect for human dignity, equal opportunity and, above all, the chance to be treated like a man.”

Even after legal victories in civil rights, he wrote, the grassroots Black person faces the same obstacles as before: “Slums, lack of quality education, denial of equal job opportunities and so little change to overcome the effects of second-class citizenship.”

He issued a call to everyone in entertainment “to help eliminate the problems which have created bitterness and despair among so many. Together, we just might reach the supposedly unreachable who have been allowed to become alienated and apathetic by the slowness of social and economic changes.”

On the same page was a column by actor Hari Rhodes (“Daktari”). When Rhodes started his career in the 1950s, Hollywood’s usual depictions of Black people were stereotypes, Rhodes wrote. As the industry got more enlightened, Black people weren’t depicted with more dimension: “They were eliminated.”

In a first-person anecdote, Rhodes said he had read about a studio starting a new-talent program with an open-door policy. He spoke with an exec and listed his credits; he was invited to come in person the next day. Rhodes said, “Perhaps I should tell you … I’m Negro.” The reaction was silence, followed by, “Oh, well then, forget it.” But then, Rhodes wrote, Sidney Poitier created a breakthrough in films and Bill Cosby in TV with “I Spy.” Rhodes concluded, “I’m concerned that, while color may matter less, it still matters.”