Americans are paying tribute to Ossie Davis for a lifetime of work in show business and as an activist in U.S. society. Mr. Davis died Friday (04 February) at the age of 87, apparently of natural causes.
He was found in his hotel room in Florida where he had been working on a film called Retirement. But retirement was something far removed from Ossie Davis' own life. The tall, distinguished and imposing actor, writer and director was known as much for his years of work as a champion of social causes as he was for his long stage and screen career.
For more than five decades, Mr. Davis worked in tandem with his wife, actress Ruby Dee -- whom he met onstage in his 1946 Broadway debut in the play, Jeb. He played an African American soldier who returns home from World War II only to take up a fight against racism, and Ossie Davis said the role mirrored his own life.
“It was exactly what I was living…I hardly had to learn the lines because I am a southerner and I have come exactly from those circumstances,” he told VOA in 2002. “The great surprise for me was meeting this extraordinary young lady named Ruby Dee, and I haven't been able to get her out of my life since.”
Ossie Davis was born in Cogdell, Georgia on December 18, 1917. He first gained critical acclaim for his 1961 play Purlie Victorious, in which he and his wife performed. For more than five decades, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were one of America's most revered acting couples, known for their commitment to theatrical excellence.
They also demonstrated how art and politics often go hand in hand. They were eyewitnesses to some of the most important events in civil rights history. Mr. Davis was present at the groundbreaking concert by singer Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 -- after she was denied admission to Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin. In 1965, he gave the eulogy at the funeral of assassinated civil rights activist Malcolm X.
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were two of the six recipients last year of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors presented in Washington, D.C. At the tribute, Ms. Dee reflected on just how far they both had come. “It makes me feel something marvelous about this country,” she said, “that no mater what grievances we may have, this is a country that respects its rebels, too.”
For 12 years, Ossie Davis enjoyed his role as master of ceremonies at the annual National Memorial Day Concerts on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Mr. Davis, who served in World War II, often spoke of his commitment to U.S. veterans.
He was also a supporter of the establishment of a black national theater. “As long as there is a story about us that we need to tell each other, particularly the stories that nobody else is telling, there will be a need for black theater,” Ossie Davis told VOA in 2002. “And as long as there's a need for black theater, there will be a need for somebody to supply it.”
Mr. Davis is survived by his wife, Ruby Dee, three children and seven grandchildren.