I was privileged to meet Sammy Davis, Jr. in the mid 1950s and had a friendship that deepened over the years until his death in 1990. Over the course of that friendship, Sammy and I conducted many conversations that were recorded and used for his autobiographies Yes, I Can and Why Me? But in neither of those books did we touch on his role in the Civil Rights movement or his thoughts on August 28, 1963. I have since shared this story in a book of photos taken by Sammy throughout his life, Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr. Below, in his own words, are Sammy's recollection of that momentous day:
We left early, first thing, flying out of Detroit to Washington. We got in and it was early in the morning and it was already happening. The streets were alive and buzzing.
We met at the Lincoln Memorial. Thats where the "I have a dream speech" was given. So you looked down from the Lincoln Memorial and there's the Washington Monument. Filled. Just filled on both sides, all the way down.
I was scared. You know, wonder whats going to happen? The anticipation of what was going to happen. They were saying things like, if 10 thousand people show up it'll be something. You know, maybe 20 thousand at best. And all the police! Within around three hours of arriving, you knew there was not going to be a riot. Everybody was smiling. And the malcontents were kept so far away that they couldn't interfere. You saw everybody, you saw them all. Lerone Bennett and a few other of the guys from Johnson Publications, Ebony and Jet, a few of the photographers, black and white photographers that I knew. We were standing on the steps before the speakers started. Then King got there. And I'm standing, looking down from Lincoln down to the Washington Monument, and going, it's going to be a good day, man, and everybody started smiling and you knew there ain't going to be no trouble. This is going to be great. This is what we prayed for. And it was like a virus that spread among the people. It was everybody. I saw little vignettes of things. People touching, holding hands, probably black people who had never touched white people, or hugged or had a physical line of communication before in their lives. And vice versa. White people who had never been next to a poor, humble black woman and her child that shes holding and everybody had love, it was unbelievable. It really was an unbelievable day, and I remember somebody saying to me, come on, sit on the podium. And I said, no. I cant see from the podium. I want to see it. I want to be out front. And one of the guys from Ebony said, well, Sam, come sit down here, and I went down like in the first, second row because I was taking pictures and I wanted to be where I could see what was happening, as opposed to being up there looking out at the people. And then afterwards I came up and there were some pictures taken and I walked up to Martin, and everybody was crying, and I just remember saying, thank you. Thank you, and I couldnt say anymore than that. And he grabbed me and hugged me and I hugged him, and they swept him away.
It was a monumental day in many respects. First of all, more than any single incident, the galvanizing of what the civil rights movement was about was that day. It showed that we could live together, the black and whites and Hispanics and everybody else, that we should be pulling together.
I think it was the most American day in the history of our country, save for perhaps the Battle of Bunker Hill. Or, maybe the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It's to be put on that level, for me, it's on the level of that kind of an occasion.
Twenty years later to the day of the march we all went back. And we recaptured it, the affection, and to see people who had been there 20 years earlier and to see the people who now were there, the young faces, it was joyous. A couple of kids came up to me and said, Sam? You were here before. Is this what it was like? I said, Yeah. Keep it going, man, keep it going.