For Black History Month let us remember Howard University’s, and fellow, alumnus Ossie Davis. The great civil rights activist, actor, writer and director Ossie Davis took a break from his busy schedule to film a public service announcement in 1999. “Join us to fight against hate and violent crimes driven by bigotry” was the intro tag line.
We were joined by the Westchester County Journal News (LoHud) in this PSA effort. One year later, in 2000, with the help of the Anti-Defamation League, and several other contributors across the state, New York became the 43rd state in the nation to pass a hate crime law increasing penalties for hate crime.
He was about 82 when this commercial was taped in my humble living room turned-set. I had one line. In between takes, he said to me, “this is what gives my life purpose”. He will always be remembered by me as a mentor, “frat”, and a friend
– Derickson Lawrence
Ossie Davis (born Raiford Chatman Davis; December 18, 1917 – February 4, 2005) was a film, television and Broadway actor, director, poet, playwright, author, and social activist.
The name Ossie came from a county clerk who misheard his mother’s pronunciation of his initials “R.C.” when he was born. So he inadvertently became “Ossie” when his mother told the courthouse clerk in Clinch County, Ga., who was filing his birth certificate that his name was R.C. Davis. Davis experienced racism from an early age when the KKK threatened to shoot his father, whose job they felt was too advanced for a black man to have. Following the wishes of his parents, he attended Howard University but dropped out in 1939 to fulfill his acting career in New York; he later attended Columbia University School of General Studies. His acting career, which spanned eight decades, began in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem. During World War II, Davis served in the United States Army in the Medical Corps. He made his film debut in 1950 in the Sidney Poitier film No Way Out. He voiced Anansi the spider on the PBS children’s television series Sesame Street in its animation segments.
In 1989, Ossie Davis and his wife, actress/activist Ruby Dee, were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. In 1995, they were awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the country and presented in a White House ceremony by the President of the United States. And in 2004, they were recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. According to the Kennedy Center Honors:
- “The Honors recipients recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts— whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television — are selected by the Center’s Board of Trustees. The primary criterion in the selection process is excellence. The Honors are not designated by art form or category of artistic achievement; the selection process, over the years, has produced balance among the various arts and artistic disciplines.
In 1948, Davis married actress Ruby Dee. In their joint autobiography With Ossie and Ruby, they described their decision to have an open marriage (later changing their minds). In the mid 1960s they moved to the New York suburb of New Rochelle where they remained ever after. Their son Guy Davis is a blues musician and former actor, who appeared in the film Beat Street and the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. Their daughters are Nora Davis Day and Hasna Muhammad.
They were well known as civil rights activists, and were close friends of Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other icons of the era. Davis and Dee’s deep involvement in the movement is characterized by how instrumental they were in organizing the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, even to the point of serving as emcee. Davis, alongside Ahmed Osman, delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X. He re-read part of this eulogy at the end of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. He also delivered a stirring tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at a memorial in New York’s Central Park the day after King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Derickson Lawrence and Black Westchester Magazine Salutes Ossie Davis!