Ossie Davis: an exemplary American and human being

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One of the stellar performers of the American stage and films and a beacon of the civil rights movement is gone. Ossie Davis died last week in Miami at the age of 87. He was in the process of making yet another movie as he had so many times before.

He wasn’t supposed to be called “Ossie,” but when his mother, with her thick Georgia drawl and elision, wrapped her tongue around the initials “R.C.”—for Raiford Chatman—the official recording the information put it down as Ossie and it stuck from then on (popmatters.com).

Davis became a standout in black theater and then in the larger venue beyond. His career spanned some 60 years and included 80 films, several of them for director Spike Lee. Ossie was not only an actor but a playwright and director as well, but it was his indefatigable efforts as a civil rights activist and warrior for equality that etched the name and personality of Ossie Davis into the American consciousness.

Lee said Davis’s biggest influence on him was not only as an artist but as a civil rights activist. A fellow actor and co-worker, Delroy Lindo, called Davis “a genius.”

He was born in 1917, the eldest of five children. He attended and graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., a far cry from his home territory of Waycross, Ga.

During World War II, he served with the Army in Libya as part of an African-American medical unit, treating wounded troops and preparing them to ship back to the States.

He first worked with Ruby Dee in 1946 in a play called Jeb. Davis thought she was simply wonderful while she, on the other hand, considered Ossie a “country bumpkin.” As it turned out, the bumpkin and the actress married two years later and enjoyed a fruitful, creative and productive life together for 56 years. In 1998, he published an autobiography with his wife. It was titled With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

Ossie and Ruby became increasingly active in civil rights advocacy. They raised money for the Freedom Riders; when the 1963 march on Washington, D.C., came about, they were there; they backed the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Activism mattered as much as performing and held equal potential for change.

Wilbur Aldridge, regional director of the Mid-Hudson region of the NAACP, said of Davis: “I think it’s a loss to America, be it African America, white America or Hispanic America. It is a loss to mankind. He had a presence of civility.”

Davis, along with a handful of others like Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, gave African Americans mature and inspiring role models. He also displayed great personal integrity and character. Davis always opposed injustice in whatever form. He was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq.

At the time of the Iraq invasion, he spoke at the Riverside Church in New York City. Davis said: “I thought with the pain and anguish of Vietnam that my country had learned a lesson, that we had decided that there was an end to our reliance on technological tricks and gimmickry. But I see today that I have been mistaken. As I read once again the magnificent words of Dr. King upon that occasion and saw how easily we might this very night transpose the word Vietnam for Iraq, and the document would still be an eloquent cry for sanity and for peace.

“But I also believe that it is necessary to stay on the march, to be on the journey, to work for peace wherever we are at all times, because the liberty we cherish, which we would share with the world, demands eternal vigilance.

“And democracy is no easy path, but those of us who believe in it must be prepared to sacrifice in its cause more willingly than those who are prepared to die in the wars of aggression. We, too, must be dedicated to the cause of freedom. I’m happy to join once again with those of you who see the cause as I do.

“I say to my commanding officer, ‘Martin, here we are. Ossie, Ruby, our children and grandchildren, all our house, all of us joined with millions from one end of creation to the other. Martin, we report for duty, sir.’ Thank you” (democracy now.org).

Coni Williams, a community activist in New York state, reflecting on Ossie Davis’s life, said: “This man was one of a kind. The mold was broken, and I don’t know anyone living who can hold a candle to him. He was so supportive of civil rights, right until the end. That is talking the talk and walking the walk” (journalnews.com).

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