Frank Sinatra: A Beacon of Change During Vegas Segregation Era

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Undeniably, Frank Sinatra’s star power was a beacon of change during the era of segregation in Las Vegas. His position of influence and staunch advocacy for equality indeed contributed towards progress. However, a persistent myth credits Sinatra with single-handedly demolishing the shameful edifice of segregation on the Las Vegas Strip, a legacy that would, in fact, require political will and action.

In the mid-1950s, Sinatra made a substantial stand for equality by insisting that his Rat Pack bandmate, Sammy Davis Jr., be allowed to stay with the group at the Sands Casino Hotel, forcing the establishment to adjust its discriminatory rules. The story may be repeated often, yet it is a testament to Sinatra’s willingness to leverage his celebrity status for civil rights at a time when few white, let alone famous, figures would openly contest racial injustice.

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Around the same period, Sinatra found that his friend, singer Nat King Cole, would dine separately from the rest of the performers at the Sands. Upon learning the reason behind this solitary meal routine, Sinatra wasted no time in extending an invitation to Cole to join him at dinner, essentially integrating the Sands’ Garden Room.

Sinatra’s commitment to tackling racial issues went beyond personal gestures, as evidenced by his participation in a 1961 benefit for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference at New York’s Carnegie Hall. His concerts often included commentary on the evils of segregation, and in a piece for Ebony magazine, written in 1958, Sinatra bemoaned societal immaturity around issues of racial prejudice.

However, the blunt reality of Las Vegas before 1960 was that people of color were systematically excluded from casino hotels, even those who, like Davis and Cole, were sought-after entertainers. They were forced to enter through service entrances, perform, and exit the same way. Black tourists had to seek lodgings on the Westside, the local African-American community located a significant distance from the Strip.

While Sinatra courageously bucked these exclusionary trends, the power to truly transform the policy lay beyond his reach. During his lifetime, he perceived his actions as instrumental in reshaping Las Vegas, even stating in an interview later in life, “It changed, it absolutely all changed.” But the hidden reality was that his influence, no matter how significant, was manipulated by casino managers who were skilled at temporarily placating him without committing to substantial, lasting change. When Sinatra or other performers influential enough to demand integration were not around, the old policies were resurrected.

The momentous change Sinatra wished he had instigated truly came about on March 26, 1960, during an iconic meeting at the then-defunct Moulin Rouge casino hotel, the first desegregated casino hotel in Las Vegas. The meeting, hosted by the local NAACP chapter president, James B. McMillan, was attended by casino representatives and government leaders and resulted in the Moulin Rouge Agreement, marking a significant breakthrough in ending segregation on the Strip. This landmark agreement led to further bans on discrimination in business and employment and was primarily fueled by fear of a pending civil rights march in protest of segregation.

Therefore, it was not an entertainer who won the basic human rights for the black community in Las Vegas. It was the unified force of the black community itself, led by local civil rights advocates, that effected real change.