In 1964 Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor prize for ''Lilies of the Field'' -- a historic victory signaling racial progress in Hollywood and beyond

By Josh Rottenberg
January 30, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

Sidney Poitier didn’t think he had a prayer. Sitting in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium at the 1964 Academy Awards, the 37-year-old actor — a Best Actor nominee for the drama Lilies of the Field — hadn’t prepared a single word of an acceptance speech. He had been nominated for Best Actor once before, for 1958’s The Defiant Ones, and lost to David Niven. This time, he was certain the award would go to Albert Finney for Tom Jones, a much bigger hit than Lilies, in which Poitier played an itinerant worker who helps a group of nuns build a chapel.

But as the evening wore on and Poitier’s category drew closer, a thought suddenly popped into his head: What if I do win? His nerves jangled, he began to sweat in his tuxedo and racked his brain for an opening line that would be worthy of the occasion — and finally landed on one: “It is a long journey to this moment.”

When actress Anne Bancroft opened the envelope and read Poitier’s name, it indeed felt like the culmination of a long journey, not only for Poitier but for the film industry and the country as a whole. In the entire 35-year history of the Academy Awards, no black actor had ever won an Oscar for a leading role. “I was exhilarated,” Poitier wrote years later. “I was happy for me, but I was also happy for the ‘folks.’ We black people had done it.”

Other African-American actors had won Oscars before him; Hattie McDaniel earned Best Supporting Actress for 1939’s Gone With the Wind, and James Baskett received an Honorary Oscar for playing Uncle Remus in Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South. But by taking home the Best Actor award, Poitier had seemingly leveled the playing field in a single stroke, giving hope to other black actors — and the entire African-American community — that real change was at hand. “It was overwhelming to witness that moment — to know that, yes, it can happen,” recalls actress Cicely Tyson. “Sidney looked like me. He looked like my brother, my father, my nephews. He looked like us.”

Poitier’s win came at a time of tremendous social and political upheaval, as civil rights leaders sought to raise the country’s consciousness and end centuries of discrimination. The previous summer, Poitier had stood by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial as he offered his sweeping vision of racial harmony. And the entertainment industry, which had long been criticized for rendering black actors nearly invisible, was starting to wake up to the cause of equality. While some theater owners in the South had refused to screen Lilies, objecting to the far-from-radical fable of racial tolerance, the crowd at the Oscar ceremony responded to Poitier’s win with clamorous applause. Taking the stage moments after Poitier’s acceptance speech, Jack Lemmon, the evening’s host, wiped away a tear, saying, “He’s a very special man.”

In many ways, Poitier, now 86, was an improbable pioneer. Raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas with fewer than two years of formal education, he moved to New York City at age 15 with a thick Caribbean accent and $1.50 in his pocket. He worked for years at odd jobs before breaking into acting. Starting with his film debut in 1950’s No Way Out, he won over audiences with his talent and charisma and soon became something Hollywood had never seen before: an A-list black movie star. “He laid the path for me,” says actor Louis Gossett Jr., who costarred with Poitier in the 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun and the 1961 film adaptation. “I had to be careful not to copy him, because he was the only one up there. He was the exception. He was the one they liked.”

Poitier was well aware that he was alone among black actors in being so widely embraced. On some level his Academy Award win could be seen as symbolic, an easy way for Hollywood to congratulate itself on its open-mindedness while still marginalizing minority actors and filmmakers. Asked in 1964 about the impact of his Oscar win, Poitier told Time, “I do hope there will be some residual benefits for other Negro actors, but I don’t fool myself into thinking that the effect will be vast.” The Oscar would help propel Poitier to even greater mainstream stardom as the ’60s went on, with hit films such as In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, With Love making him one of the most popular and highly paid actors of the era. Looking back years later, however, he wrote, “I knew that we hadn’t ‘overcome,’ because I was still the only one.”

For a long time, Poitier, who declined to be interviewed for this story, would remain the only one. It would be nearly two decades before another black actor would take home an Oscar, with Gossett’s Best Supporting Actor win for 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman. In 2002 Training Day‘s Denzel Washington became the first African-American since Poitier to win the Best Actor Oscar, and that same year the Best Actress award went for the first time to a black actress: Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball. (Poitier himself earned an Honorary Oscar that night, shortly after retiring from acting.) “Why did it take so long?” asks Tyson, who earned a Best Actress nomination for the 1972 film Sounder. “Why for so long was it just one person who had to carry the mantle? Why? I’m still asking that question.”

A half century after Poitier’s historic win, it’s a question the film industry still finds uncomfortable. “Hollywood fancies themselves as liberals, but the voting body of the Academy — and the ratio of [African-American] studio executives and producers — says just how liberal they are in regards to race,” says Lee Daniels, the director of Precious and The Butler. “But you can’t say it because it’s politically incorrect. If you say it, you’re a militant.” He laughs. “And I want to work in this town.” While the past year has been a strong one for black actors and filmmakers — in addition to The Butler we’ve seen 12 Years a Slave, 42, Captain Phillips, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Best Man Holiday, and Fruitvale Station — Daniels remains circumspect. “The fact that we’re still having this conversation says it all,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is.”