“We’ve got a hell of a long way to go in this racial situation. As long as most white men think of a Negro first and a man second, we’re in trouble. I don’t know why we can’t grow up.” Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra and Civil Rights
Frank Sinatra was an extraordinarily complicated man. Obviously, he was one of the greatest pop-culture superstars of all time. He was an accomplished film actor. Sinatra was stunningly generous in giving to charities, both publicly and privately. We know that he was also moody, violent, a womanizer, an alcoholic and an instrument of the Mafia. What is not well-known is the story of Frank Sinatra and civil rights. It turns out that Sinatra, the skinny Italian street kid from Hoboken, was a man who championed the rights of all people, regardless of race. He did so publicly. And he did so in his private life. It is a story worth telling.
An Unlikely Champion
Frank Sinatra and civil rights seem like an unlikely combination. Born in 1915 in the ethnic, rough-and-tumble working-class neighborhoods of Hoboken, New Jersey, Frank Sinatra overcame the prejudices of his time and place. He came of age in an era and area where ethnic conflict was common. Italians battled Irish. Irish battled Jews. Sicilians battled those from northern Italy. And even when those barriers were overcome peacefully there was one line that was never crossed: the racial divide that separated whites from blacks. Frank Sinatra, to his everlasting credit, leaped over that barrier and set an example for show business and the world.
An Open Mind; An Open Heart
Frank Sinatra was far from an overnight success. He came up the hard way. He scuffled in show business, with many starts and stops in the early years. He worked in wonderful clubs and in complete dives. His personal relationships were always complex, given his extreme moodiness, tendency to drink too much, and his violence. But one thing he always respected was music. A great musical artist was a great musical artist to Frank, color simply didn’t matter. He wasn’t jealous of black performers who were above him in show business at the beginning. When he reached the top, he was always willing to lend a hand to others coming up. Even in the most critical biographies of him, it is clear that black entertainers held him in great respect, both personally and professionally. It wasn’t just largess brought on by his unparalleled success. It was a function of who he was as a man.
Frank Sinatra and Civil Rights: Integrating Las Vegas
The ups and downs of his career in the late 1940s and early 1950s have been well documented. But by the mid-1950s he was back on top and wielded enormous power in the entertainment industry. He began to insist that the orchestras that backed him on his best-selling record albums were integrated. He did the same with the orchestras that backed him on his live concert tours. While this may not seem like a big deal today, it was an important step. On one level, he provided employment for excellent musicians, regardless of color. This opened the door to better pay and treatment for many black entertainers. However, it also sent a clear message to his audiences. Prejudice and racism had no place at a Frank Sinatra concert. His biographers note that he was adamant that black entertainers be treated well and that the members of his band be treated equally, regardless of race. Sinatra could be a complete horse’s ass. He was often mean-spirited, vengeful, and harsh in his treatment of other people. However, his judgments never had to do with race. Again, black musicians who played for Sinatra uniformly praised him for the ways in which they were respected.
The “Rat Pack”
has become the icon of cool. There is no question that Frank Sinatra was its leader. His nickname became the “Chairman of the Board.” And as chairman, Frank Sinatra was a major force in helping to integrate Las Vegas. The five initial members – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, each represented a different segment of America. To order the descendants of Italian immigrants. One was a loud mouthed Jewish comic from Philadelphia. Another – the butt of the jokes – was a seemingly aristocratic Brit representing the American of an earlier time. And then there was Sammy Davis. It could be argued that on the basis of sheer talent, Davis was the most gifted of the five. But in embracing Davis professionally and personally, Sinatra made a bold statement about what America would look like in the 1960s and beyond. Most of the Las Vegas hotels were strictly segregated. Black performers were, at one time, not allowed to stay on the Strip. they had to stay in the less swanky downtown area.
Lena Horne was the exception that proved the rule. She was a favorite of Mafia murderer and hotel operator Bugsy Siegel. She was allowed to
perform and stay at the Flamingo. After she checked out, the staff was instructed to burn all of her sheets, towels, and blankets. When Sinatra escorted her to the ultra-swanky Stork Club, he was told she could not be admitted. Sinatra threatened to leave and create a public stink in the media if she was not welcomed. She was. Sinatra refused to play at any club that did not admit audience members of any race.
Sammy Davis was a headliner on the black vaudeville circuit. He became a major crossover star when Frank Sinatra boosted his career. In the mid-1950s, a number of hotels tried to block Sammy Davis from entering, staying, or eating in their public restaurants. Once again, Sinatra was relentless and tireless in his demand that all entertainers be treated equally. His private insistence on fair treatment mirrored his onstage acceptance of a black entertainer and a Jewish comic as part of his retinue. It is absolutely true that the humor of the Rat Pack was often crude, even when it came to race. Yet by showing a willingness to laugh with Sammy Davis, it can be argued that Sinatra was using humor to poke fun at racism. It should be noted for the record that there were Italian jokes, Jewish jokes and other ethnic jokes that would not seem appropriate in today’s context. And much of the material was actually scripted by Joey Bishop.
Sinatra helped integrate Las Vegas in ways both private and public. Sinatra made it cool to accept integration. He wrote in Ebony Magazine in 1958: “A friend to me has no race, no class and belongs to no minority. My friendships are formed out of affection, mutual respect and a feeling of having something in common. These are eternal values that cannot be classified.”
On a national level, Frank Sinatra was a generous financial supporter of Martin Luther King. He was always willing to headline fundraisers and help the Civil Rights Movement in any way he could. He received a lifetime award from the NAACP.
Very few men have lived a life as complex and controversial as Frank Sinatra’s. But when we examine the ways in which Frank Sinatra and civil rights intertwined, it is impossible not to tip your hat to the Chairman.