by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith / March 2005 issue of Socialist Action
Actor, activist, playwright Ossie Davis died on Feb. 5 of natural causes in Miami while making the film, “Retirement.” His wife of over five decades, actor Ruby Dee, was in New Zealand at the time of his death. She had starred with him in many stage, film, and television productions.
Davis was known for his activism. Both he and Dee put their energies into progressive causes, especially civil rights—starting with the anti-lynching campaigns of the 1940s.
Like Arthur Miller, Davis voiced his opposition to the McCarthy witch-hunt hearings in the 1950s. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and for a brief time was blacklisted.
From an early age, Davis wanted to write. He eventually hitchhiked from his birthplace in segregated, Ku Klux Klan-dominated Georgia, to Washington, DC, to attend Howard University. He soon went to New York to learn more about the theater, and joined the Harlem-based Rose McClendon Players. His acting career didn’t take off till the end of World War II and his four-year stint in the U.S. Army, stationed in Liberia.
Davis had parts in several films throughout his long career, as well as appearing in and writing plays and musicals for the Broadway stage. In 1965, he made his TV debut in Eugene O’Niell’s play, “The Emperor Jones.” Amazingly, he made at least 30 film and TV appearances alone in the 1990s.
His best-known film role was as a wise, old street philosopher, Da Mayor, courting his love, played by Ruby Dee, in Spike Lee’s breakout film, “Do the Right Thing.”
Davis delivered eulogies for both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, when they were assassinated within a few years of each other, both at age 39—Malcolm X, Feb. 21, 1965, and King, April 5, 1968. Davis eulogized Malcolm as “our Black, shining prince” at a memorial at the Faith Temple Church of God. He lauded Malcolm for giving both Blacks and whites the courage to speak out against injustice and for truth, “even if we were killed for it.” Davis wanted to reach the younger generations who would not know Malcolm, except through his works. They, he said, “will rise up and redeem him.”
Ossie Davis was a speaker at the memorial gathering for Martin Luther King in New York’s Central Park the day after Dr. King’s assassination. Davis said that King was not in Memphis, when he was shot to death, to win accolades, honor, or to receive a Nobel Prize but to “help his deprived brothers win their bargaining rights from the City of Memphis.” He rallied the despondent crowd with: “but for every Martin they cut down, there must be 100 Martins to step into his shoes!”
Davis spoke at protests against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. On March 22, 2003, in New York, he spoke at a rally protesting the invasion of Iraq. He stated that to speak out for bringing the troops home and stopping the war, “to me, is patriotic … it’s my patriotic right and responsibility to tell Mr. Bush, who works for me, who spends my tax dollars, that not in my name will you do this.”
In Herald Square that day, a reporter asked about his military service in World War II. Davis responded, “[I realized] that the bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima not only killed 220,000 people over there, but [that] part of it fell on me, too. And I recognized that something cataclysmic had happened. … It called on me to make a choice … to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. I come together to say, I choose to live for brotherhood, and not for folly. I choose peace and not war. I choose life, and not death.”
On Monday, Feb. 7, two days after the death of Ossie Davis, Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now” interviewed death-row inmate and prize-winning journalist Mumia Abu Jamal and actor Danny Glover. In a tribute to Ossie Davis, Mumia said, “A lion has fallen. … At a time when it was personally, politically, and career-wise dangerous, he stepped forth to support the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and ‘70s.” He commended Davis for his ”touching and heartfelt eulogy to the black nationalist leader,
Danny Glover praised Davis for always being “on the march.” He said that whenever he asked Ossie to sign on to something, be part of something, whether about war, civil rights, defending Mumia, or whatever, Ossie was always there. He went on to say that Ossie never separated politics, theater, and art. “ Ossie Davis, Glover said, “knew the role that culture and art played in elevating us as human beings.”