Ossie Davis: Remembering a great actor & activist

By Monica Moorehead, Workers World, 13 February 2005, 8:15 PM

Ossie Davis, who passed away on Feb. 4 at the age of 87, was one of the greatest performing artists of the 20th century, or of any other century.

Born in Cogdell, Ga., Davis attended Washington, D.C.'s historic African American college, Howard University, where he met the great Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

Hearing the legendary opera singer Marian Anderson perform at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 had a great social impact on Davis's life. Anderson, who was African American, was forced at the very last moment to change her venue after being barred from Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Davis and Ruby Dee, his life partner for almost 60 years, began their stage collaboration in the 1940s in Harlem with the Rose McClendon Players. As they moved from the stage to film and television, they helped to tear down some of the racist barriers put up by the white-dominated Hollywood establishment. The two accomplished this by resisting the degrading and stereotypical roles offered to Black actors during those years.

As distinguished as Davis's career has been, he never became a Hollywood star in a traditional sense. This was true for the vast majority of Black actors. This marginalization is rooted in the racism of Hollywood and the entire U.S. entertainment industry. Although Broadway shows did dim their marquees briefly on Feb. 4 in tribute to Davis, television programs like Entertainment Tonight mentioned Davis's death in less than 3 minutes, compared to a whole week of coverage on the death of Johnny Carson.

Nevertheless, Ossie Davis has received more publicity with his death than when he was living—because he was an unwavering social activist. He and Dee risked losing their careers early on when they came under an anti-communist attack. It was because they supported the powerful African American actor, singer and social activist Paul Robeson. Robeson was victimized by the witch hunt during the 1950s and was forced to leave the U.S. because of it. This did not prevent him from performing all over the world, including Wales, China and the former Soviet Union, where he was beloved.

Davis and Dee were avid supporters of the U.S. civil rights movement and close friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The actors helped to facilitate the rally at the historic 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King made his famous I Have a Dream speech.

During that rebellious period of the 1960s, Davis became a good friend of Malcolm X, who also came under a vicious racist attack by the U.S. government for advocating Black pride and the right to self-defense. It was Davis who gave the moving eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X in 1965. (See accompanying article.)

Even during times of political reaction, Davis supported many progressive causes until his death. For instance, when it came to supporting a new trial for African American revolutionary journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, still on death row, Ossie Davis was always there front and center. Davis spoke at the Evening of Justice for Mumia rally Feb. 26, 1999, at Town Hall in New York to promote the Millions for Mumia march in Philadelphia that April 24, Mumia's birthday.

A year later, on May 7, Davis spoke at the A Day for Mumia rally before 6,000 people inside the Madison Square Garden Theater. Also participating were actor Ed Asner, hip-hop artist Mos Def, attorney Johnnie Cochran, former New York Mayor David Dinkins and many more.

Davis also actively opposed U.S. imperialist intervention around the globe. When asked to lend his voice to an April 7, 2004, rally to help bring broader attention to the U.S. role in the coup-napping of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Ossie Davis did not hesitate to say yes, along with Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

Before a packed auditorium of mainly Haitians at Brooklyn College, Davis read a moving rendition of the 1893 speech on the impact of the 1804 Haitian revolution worldwide given by Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became the first U.S. Ambassador to Haiti.

Davis openly opposed the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 and the present U.S. war and occupation of Iraq. He worked consistently on these activities and others with organizations such as the International Action Center in New York. The IAC issued a statement on Davis's passing (iacenter.org).

Another great artist and activist, Harry Belafonte, fought back tears at a press conference after Davis's death. Belafonte compared his friend to Dr. King, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and Fanny Lou Hamer. These comparisons help describe a great humanitarian who never separated his artistry from the struggle to liberate humanity from war and oppression. This is the legacy that Ossie Davis leaves behind for the movement today and for future struggles to come.