HBO’s Sinatra Documentary Acknowledges JFK’s Racism

It’s a rarity when anything breaks through the media-produced “Camelot” myth of the Kennedy White House years, but one instance came, in of all places, HBO’s Sinatra: All or Nothing At All documentary which highlighted President Kennedy’s racism. He demanded that Frank Sinatra remove Sammy Davis Jr. from the inaugural gala because he was dating a white woman.

At a time when the media try to discredit conservatives as racists, it’s noteworthy that a liberal hero really was profoundly racist.

In part two of the documentary first run this past Monday night, Nancy Sinatra Jr. recounted Kennedy’s disgust toward Sammy Davis Jr. for having the relationship with a white woman. President-elect Kennedy had put her father in charge of the 1961 inaugural night entertainment and Frank Sinatra’s daughter remembered:

The Kennedys had a very specific way of thinking and doing things. And at one point, dad’s friendship with Sammy Davis Jr., who was soon to marry May Britt, became a political rub for them. She was a beautiful white blonde actress and they didn’t like the idea of the inter-racial marriage. This is the Kennedys. You would have thought the reverse of them. Dad got a phone call and he was asked to dis-invite Sammy Davis to the inaugural gala. And he actually had to do it.

That story matches the Kennedy racism then-Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood recalled deep in his November of 2008 article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which later became the inspiration for the movie, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

In his story about Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler from the Eisenhower through the Reagan administrations, Haygood reported:

In February 1963, Kennedy invited 800 blacks to the White House to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Louis Martin, a Democratic operative who helped plan the function, had placed the names of entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and his wife, May Britt, on the guest list. The White House scratched it off and Martin would put it back on. According to Martin, Kennedy was aghast when he saw the black and white couple stroll into the White House. His face reddened and he instructed photographers that no pictures of the interracial couple would be taken.

Naturally, that anecdote didn’t make it into the film starring Oprah Winfrey.

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center