White Savior Narratives Lose Sight of the Struggle

A prevailing theme in the historical narratives for any struggle for people of color is that some white savior came along and saved the day. People like Abraham Lincoln are emphasized, along with other white allies against oppression like abolitionist John Brown, or earlier forefathers who are seen as revolutionary simply for not being as bigoted as their peers. Meanwhile, nameless people of color by the millions were enduring the hardships, and our attention always seems to turn to the white heroes.

This is even the case in the relatively recent narrative of the desegregation of the music business. Black artists struggled for visibility for years, most of them resigning themselves to only appearing on the musical ghetto of the “race records” chart. While they fought for modest amounts of success, covers of their own material or otherwise subpar tracks performed by white artists sold hundreds of times more records. Audiences were segregated, and in many cases, black artists were forced to perform at clubs that wouldn’t even allow other people of color in to hear them perform.

L to R: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra – The three biggest stars of the Rat Pack.

Frank Sinatra is the most common name brought up in the narrative of desegregation in music, especially Las Vegas. According to the stories, Sinatra eventually told major clubs in Las Vegas that the Rat Pack would no longer perform there unless Sammy Davis Jr. was allowed to enter the venue with the rest of the group and stay at the same hotels. Sinatra is often singularly credited with bringing about the change that black artists fought for their entire lives.

This is not to diminish the impact or the quality of character of Frank Sinatra. By all accounts, including contemporary accounts of artists of color he worked with, Sinatra genuinely cared about the cause and used his star status to help create real change. The problem is that we lose sight of the people of color actually living the struggle, who fought in their own way, but are overshadowed by the white savior narrative.

Nat King Cole backstage in Birmingham, Alabama, the night he was the target of a racist attack by a group of white supremacists. He would never return to the state of Alabama.

Nat King Cole famously struggled with blatant racism. When he achieved enough success to move into a nice house in a good neighborhood, someone poisoned his dog. In another incident, a racial epithet was burned into his front lawn. Still, he didn’t allow the bigotry to push him or his family out of the neighborhood. When neighbors reported Cole to the I.R.S. with bogus claims of not paying taxes, Cole and his family resisted.

Hotels that hired Nat King Cole and other artists of color like Sammy Davis Jr. would be happy to have them perform and make them money, but refused to allow them to stay in the hotels. Cole privately sued many of the venues that discriminated against him, and won his lawsuits. For a period, he boycotted Las Vegas because of the blatant racism, until finally breaking the color barrier in 1954 and staying at the hotel where he performed. Even in contemporary accounts, Cole’s resistance is underreported.

A famous story from 1947 involves Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and other members of the New York Yankees baseball team getting into a brawl at the Copacabana with a group who were shouting racial slurs at Sammy Davis Jr. on stage. Although the team being willing to fight over putting an end to the horrible racism is noteworthy, this was the world artists like Sammy Davis Jr. lived in practically every single night, and little to no fanfare is given for the resistance and strength it took to simply be black in the same era. The white allies inconvenienced themselves momentarily, and perhaps professionally, but the people of color who endured the hardships will always have gone through far worse.

It says a lot about the impact of white supremacy that even when praising a white person doing something important for people of color, we continue to lose sight of the people of color. When we reflect back on major moments in the fight for civil rights, in music or otherwise, we are doing those who suffered a huge disservice by turning our attention away from those who truly endured.

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