Frank Sinatra and Civil Rights: The Chairman Speaks Up

“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 - With Nat "King" Cole

Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole

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 Frank SInatra And Civil Rights : With Louis Armstrongwas 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”

The Rat Pack on Stage

The Rat Pack on Stage

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

Frank SInatra And Civil Rights - With Lena Horne

Frank Sinatra with Lena Horne

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,Frank SInatra And Civil Rights : With Martin and 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.






15 thoughts on “Frank Sinatra and Civil Rights: The Chairman Speaks Up

  1. What a surprising and interesting story. This helps us remember that most people are complex and multifaceted and you can’t place them into simple categories.

    • Thank you for your comment!

      There is MUCH about Mr. Sinatra that is just despicable. But there is simply no question of his deep, personal belief in equality. While integrating Las Vegas showrooms was less dangerous than marching with Medgar Evers, it was important and meaningful. Many white entertainers had the opportunity to take the stand that Sinatra took and declined. His dedication and leadership deserve respect and recognition.

  2. Very interesting perspective. And it reminds us that if each person just made a little difference in our own part of the world, as Sinatra did in the entertainment industry, what a better place it would be.

    • Jay,

      Great observation! It reminds me of the quote from Anne Frank: “How beautiful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to make the world a better place.”

      Frank Sinatra was a very bad man in may ways, yet when it came to civil rights and support of the rights of Jews, his record is pretty amazing.

  3. Re the article re FS and Civil Rights, it has often been forgotten how much he put his career on the line over the issue of racism.
    When Nat Cole was attacked by racist thugs onstage in the Deep South in 1956, Frank arranged for a plane to fly him and his group
    back to NY. He was also a pallbearer for Nat’s funeral in 1965, which really says something as he NEVER went to funerals.
    HHe was involved in anti lynching pressure groups with Eleanor Roosevelt back as far back as the mid 1940s.
    two of the best stories I heard relating to Frank on this matter, was when Sammy Davis Jnr walked into a hotel in Las Vegas and was told
    by the manager “We don’t have Negroes here.” FS walked up behind Sammy and said to the manager, “You do now, I just bought this
    place !”. Frank was earning $52,000 a week in 1959…..he was also a briiliant businessman.
    The other story was related by George Jacobs.
    INiIn his memoirs, about his time as a valet with FS. He walked into a bar with FS, and some W.A.S.P.S sitting at a table made some ugly
    reremarks about George. FS looked at the group with icy fury, and told George to put his hat and coat away. By the time he got back,
    the W.A.S.P.S had gone, and so were the tables and chairs !
    fRFrank was capable of some very ugly behaviour, but compared to his peers (Crosby, Hope, Stewart, Wayne, Regan, Cooper), he
    was extremely progressive. Richard Havers summed FS perfectly in his book “Sinatra” – “Civil rights came to Frank Sinatra, not the other way around.”

  4. Pingback: Peter Lawford - Marilyn, JFK, Sinatra & Secrets

  5. Hi Barrry, I’m artist art activist , I just shared your great blog about Frank! :) I searched for the perfect one, important to what my Dad taught me about, Frank’s Civil Righrs.
    I play his music a lot, because it’s tomeless !
    Thank you,
    Great work you do.

    • Carole,

      Thank you for your kind words! Sinatra was a complex man with many faults – but when it came to support of Civil Rights (and in supporting Israel) his record is one that should be respected and imitated!


  6. Fantastic Article, I learn things in this article that I did not know about Frank Sinatra before, but I always knew that he was a good person.

    • He was a very complicated man, to be sure, but I’ve spoken with contemporaries of Dr. King who said Sinatra’s heart was in the right place when it came to the Civil Rights Movement.

  7. Sinatra was a great admirer of another great across the border, Javier Solis. They both shared an amazing talent as singers and entertainers, they both set the pace so to speak for future generations. Sinatra once said that Solis was the Sinatra of Mexico.

    Sinatra came to Mexico exclusively to meet Javier Solis, not the other way around. Plus, Sinatra lend Solis his Orchestra or part of it if I’m not mistaken to produce Solis’ “Javie rSolis in Nueva York”.

    • Hector,

      Thank you for this fascinating anecdote. Sinatra was definitely interested in a wide variety of music. His album with Antonio Carlos Jobim was a masterpiece and introduced many Americans to the amazing music of the great Jobim.

      I appreciate your comment and thank you for reading my blog!


  8. Pingback: Las Vegas Then & Now: Racism and Rape Culture - The Radical Notion

  9. Pingback: Barry Bradford On National TV - Speaking For A ChangeSpeaking For A Change

  10. Pingback: Barry Bradford On National TV - Speaking For A ChangeSpeaking For A Change

Leave a Reply to Barry Bradford Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *