Sammy Davis Jr. is onstage in slacks with an open button-down that’s neatly tied in a bow at his waist. He’s performing at the Republican Youth Rally in Miami, two days after the Republicans nominated president Richard Nixon for reelection in 1972. Once the crowd sees Nixon guarded by Secret Service, they begin to chant, “Four more years!” Davis knows exactly what to do. He’s a natural-born entertainer. He quiets the crowd and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, young voters, the president of the United States.” Everyone goes wild. And in a moment no one saw coming, the two embrace in a hug for all the world to see.
But by aligning himself with Nixon, Davis had unknowingly made himself the target of the black community’s ire.
The seeds for this unlikely political love affair had been planted at least a year prior to The Hug. Davis had strutted into the White House on July 1, 1971, to accept his role on the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity. He loved every minute of what felt like power. Gucci briefcase in tow, he rubbed elbows with James Brown and businessman Bob Brown. Nixon would later send Davis to Mahalia Jackson’s funeral as his representative and to Vietnam to perform for the American soldiers. Nixon thanked Davis for his support by inviting him and his wife, Altovise, to the White House in 1973 for a reception hosted by Bob Hope.
By then black folks were irate. How could the man who’d given financial support to the Black Panther Party, raised legal defense funds for Angela Davis, contributed to the United Negro College Fund, and supported Bobby Seale for mayor of Oakland be the same guy publicly endorsing Nixon?
Davis saw his allegiance with Nixon as an opportunity, not a betrayal. By accepting invitations, he had the president’s ear and could advocate for issues that affected black people. “When my wife, Altovise, and I were invited to the White House after the November elections, I repeated [my recommendations],” he told Ebony. “There it was, the morning after I performed … We started to rap, and he asks, ‘What can I do? Come on, Sam, tell me what I can do.’ So I laid it down again.”