When he was 17 years old, Sammy Davis, Jr. was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War II, “…all of five foot six inches and one hundred twenty pounds,” he said in a book about his life. “He had the bad luck of being drafted into the first integrated infantry and it was murder. They treated him horrendously,” said author Burt Boyar in American Masters – Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me. He got jumped. Other GIs urinated on him.
Later in his life on The Arsenio Hall Show, Davis recounted that the other GIs painted him white and poured urine in his beer. He said that “they needed to say, ‘Hey man, get that nigger now. Stop him.’ I tried physically; I got my nose broke three times man.” Separately, on The Dick Cavett Show, he told the story of a time when he defended himself: “And the guy said, ‘Where I come from, niggers don’t go in front of white people’…I turned and hit him…cat fell to the ground, his mouth was bleeding, and he looked up at me and he said, ‘Well, you beat me but you still a nigger.’” His conclusion was that “…even if you win, you don’t win.”
Davis’s experience in the Army had a profound influence on his life. The American cultural critic Gerald Early theorized that Davis thought that by becoming a success he would be able to “transcend all those humiliations…they’re going to love [him] as an entertainer no matter how much they may hate [him] as a Black.”
American Masters asked Sam Pollard, director of Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, what he thought of Davis’s experience in light of the recent demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement: “Looking at all that is going on in America and around the world after the death of George Floyd, I am reminded of all that Sammy Davis, Jr. had to face in a hostile segregated world to make his voice heard and his identity recognized. This is so clearly seen in his experiences in the Army where he had to fight day after day for dignity and manhood in a racist America. He knew then that his life mattered, as we all recognize today that Black Lives Matter.”