By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
“We didn’t have the disadvantage of television in those days,” Ossie Davis, the
brilliant African-American actor and activist, pointedly told the Washington Post recently,
speaking of the impact of absorbing his parents’ love of literature in his youth in the 1920s
“My imagination caught fire and I have never been able to put the fires out. And
that is essentially who I am: the dreamer who is still caught in the dream.”
Aren’t we lucky the ones.
For the fire his parents planted and that Ossie himself stoked over a long life and
career has left us to treasure: roles in nearly three dozen films, several wonderful plays,
scores of appearances on stage, in television dramas and comedies—and a real life well
Ossie Davis died February 4 in Miami Beach, Florida, where, appropriately, he was
making a film. He was 87 and suffered from heart disease, his family said.
Ossie Davis had a magnificent, instantly recognizable baritone—and the strength of
character to go with it.
In that latter characteristic, he was matched perfectly by Ruby Dee, a brilliant actor
in her own right, and his wife of 56 years. In recent years they have rightly gained
recognition as one of the great husband-and-wife acting tandems of modern times.
That status is perhaps the more remarkable because Ossie and Ruby never
shirked what they considered the call of duty to advance progressive causes. Both their
lives and careers have been profoundly rooted in the struggle against injustice, especially
the battle against the poisonous doctrines of racial bigotry.
Ossie Davis’ life bore witness to a powerful truth: he never became the man the
American society of his youth demanded he be.
Coming of age in a United States filled with hostility toward blacks, he would not
don the garb of inferiority, servility, or fear. He was not afraid of striving to make use of
his multiple talents in acting, playwriting, directing, and of capturing the attention of the
world with his powerful voice and commanding presence.
Davis served in the Army during World War II; but his patriotism ran deeper than
mere uncritical, unthinking love of country. He (and Ruby Dee) staunchly defended
targets of McCarthy-era blacklisting, including the great actor and activist, Paul Robeson,
despite the threat such a stand presented to his own career. He was not afraid of
challenging Authority when Authority was unjust. A stalwart supporter of the National
Urban League until the end of his life, he wasn’t afraid of the potential cost to his acting
career in the 1950s for his protests against McCarthyism; or in the 1960s for his support of
the Civil Rights Movement and antiwar protests; or in the current era for speaking out
against American involvement in Iraq. He was friends with both Martin Luther King, Jr.,
and Malcolm X, and delivered the eulogies at both of their funerals.
Ossie Davis came of age in a society in which he was a target of oppression. But
he refused to bow to bigotry. He exemplified the heroism of holding fast to decency in the
face of tyranny and terror that all of us, famous or anonymous, have an obligation to
An appreciation of Davis’ life in the Washington Post reported that he had told
National Public radio host Tavis Smiley last November. “We can’t float through life. We
can’t be incidental or accidental. We must fix our gaze on a guiding star as soon as one
comes upon the horizon, and once we have attached ourselves to that star, we must keep
our eyes on it and our hands on the plow.”
Those are words and ideals worthy of a dreamer.
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