Davis defended his choice of Judaism by arguing that it amplified his commitment to African American civil rights, a bridge between authentic faith and political convictions. He explained that when he became a Jew he found the faith that best expressed the self he already had and the experiences he had lived: “I have always been a Jew in my thinking.” In a way that white converts to Judaism never had to, he developed an explanation of the inherent harmony among his racial, ethnic, and religious identities.
When the versatile entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism in 1960, his religious choice was widely mocked by fellow entertainers and derided by Christian African Americans who felt that Davis had abandoned his race. Yet Davis was never anything but adamant that his racial and religious identities were not only compatible but logical. This lecture explores how Davis came to identify with Judaism, why his decision elicited such controversy, and what we can learn about the racial and religious politics of the mid-20th-century United States from his story.