In the 1970s, Sammy Davis Jr., one of this country’s most brilliant entertainers, infuriated the Black communities by hugging then-President Richard Nixon on live TV. It was an exaggerated show of support for the Watergate-beleaguered president. Davis was no ostrich when it came to the state of Blacks in America. Active in the Civil Rights Movement, the superstar refused to work at segregated venues. His stance led to the integration of nightclubs in Miami Beach and casinos in Las Vegas.
All along, Davis had been a voting Democrat. That changed after he married Swedish actress May Britt in 1960, a time when laws against interracial marriage were still on the books in many states. Disinvited from the inaugural party for President John F. Kennedy because of his controversial marriage, Davis fled to the Republicans. It wasn’t so much his joining the Republicans that angered folks. No matter how much we wish it were otherwise, the Black community is enormously diverse politically. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Greens, Working People—we are all over the political spectrum.
It was the hug that did Davis in. Hostility dogged him after that. Years later, the cry, “You didn’t have to hug him, Sammy,” still echoed in the community. Davis apologized for that hug right up until his death in 1990, even though he had rejoined the Democratic Party.
In January, billionaire Robert L. Johnson, one of the most prominent Black supporters of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, gave Clinton a big hug—a verbal hug, but a hug nonetheless—at the expense of the campaign of the first Black presidential candidate to stand a real chance of winning the election. One can draw any number of parallels between the JFK White House’s actions following Davis’s marriage to May Britt and the Clinton camp’s behavior following Obama’s win in the Iowa primary.
Bristling at a backlash to Clinton’s comment before the New Hampshire primary that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson said, “To me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in Black issues—when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood; I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in his book—when they have been involved.”
Was the founder of Black Entertainment Television and owner of the National Basketball Association’s Charlotte Bobcats suggesting that African-Americans owed the Clintons something? Their vote, perhaps? Was he saying that Obama’s teenage dabbling with marijuana, alcohol and sometimes cocaine make him unfit to be president? Surely not, with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush testifying to the contrary. Obama, at least, had the strength of character to state outright what he did, in his memoir, Dreams From My Father. Johnson later said his comments referred to Obama’s work as a community organizer in Chicago “and nothing else. Any other suggestion is simply irresponsible and incorrect.”
A hug sends different messages to different people no matter what the hugger says. Today’s history-making presidential campaign gives the country, and the diverse communities from which the candidates hail, much to celebrate at a time when the country sorely needs something to cheer about. You didn’t have to drag it down with a Sammy hug, Bob.
By Rosalind McLymont