April 18, 2013

If Seats Could Talk: Richard Nixon and Sammy Davis Jr. Share the Stage at Miami Marine Stadium

In July 1971, President Nixon (1913–1994) appointed Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925–1990), to his National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity. Credit: Marion S. Trikosko, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection, Library of Congress
In July 1971, President Nixon appointed Sammy Davis Jr. to his National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity.

Though it’s been closed for 20 years, the 6,566-seat Miami Marine Stadium has seen its share of excitement since it was built in 1963. You’ve read about the boat races, concerts, and boxing matches held there in both the Spring 2013 issue of Preservation magazine and in the first two parts of our “If Seats Could Talk” series, a collection of stories compiled by the Friends of the Miami Marine Stadium to raise awareness and increase support for the venue’s restoration.

In part three, Stuart Blumberg shares his experience attending a political rally at the stadium -- and witnessing an embrace that went down in history.

Stuart Blumberg

I attended the famous campaign rally at the Miami Marine Stadium in 1972, where Sammy Davis Jr. hugged Richard Nixon -- but first, a little background.

In 1968, I was managing the Hilton Plaza Hotel, which was the last hotel in Miami Beach to be built until the Loews hotel, which opened in 1998. We ended up being the campaign headquarters for presidential candidate Richard Nixon for the 1968 [Republican National Convention], which was held in Miami Beach. This was truly an experience for me, as I had been a political science major in college. I wound up meeting and getting to know all of the President’s key staff -- Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, etc.

When the 1968 Presidential campaign was over, I was fortunate enough to continue my relationship with Ehrlichman, and, in fact, I went to the White House several times.

In 1972, I was between careers, and Nixon’s staff reached out to me and said that they wanted me to run their campaign hotel headquarters in Miami Beach, which was at the Doral Beach Hotel (that year, both the Republican and Democratic conventions were held in Miami Beach). This time, it was different: As President, Richard Nixon participated in very few public gatherings, and there was much greater security.

The public rally at the Miami Marine Stadium was the exception to the rule for President Nixon. The defining moment was when Sammy Davis Jr. introduced the President: “The President and Future President of the United States of America!” When Nixon came onto the stage, Sammy Davis Jr. hugged him.

Sammy Davis Jr. hugs President Richard Nixon at the 1972 Republican National Convention at Miami Marine Stadium. Credits: Corbis Images
The controversial embrace

Nixon was clearly as surprised as everyone else when Sammy Davis Jr. hugged him. The crowd was really enthusiastic and didn’t react [negatively] -- but I remember thinking that this was not what I expected. After all, the President was not known for being especially friendly to blacks or other minorities.

The second thing that was unusual about that night was Nixon’s clothes. In just about every picture you see of Nixon, he had on a dark suit. At the Marine Stadium, he had a light suit -- he was certainly not in his typical outfit. I’ll just never forget the combination of Richard Nixon in a light suit, being hugged by a black entertainer, Sammy Davis Jr.

I came back to the hotel with Nixon’s entourage. I wasn’t privy to what people were saying, but the expression on everyone’s face was, “Whoa, how are we going to handle this now?” While Sammy Davis Jr. may have taken a hit from his own people over the incident, Nixon did, too.

I was like everyone else. I loved the Marine Stadium. I saw other performances there -- Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson. But nothing else stood out for me like that night when I was a little part of history.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 40 places preserving Black history.

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