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OSSIE DAVIS | 1917-2005

Actor Played a Powerful Role in Civil Rights Gains

February 05, 2005|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Ossie Davis, the baritone-voiced actor, director, playwright and civil rights activist whose commitment to teaching the lessons of black history added depth to a distinguished career that ranged from the Broadway stage to the films of Spike Lee, was found dead early Friday in his hotel room in Miami Beach, where he was filming a movie. He was 87.

Davis' body was discovered when he failed to open the door for his grandson at the Shore Club, a luxury hotel. According to Miami Beach Police Department spokesman Bobby Hernandez, the actor, who had a cardiac pacemaker, appeared to have died of natural causes.

Davis had arrived in Florida on Monday to begin filming his part in an independent movie called "Retirement" with co-stars George Segal, Rip Torn and Peter Falk. Davis had completed two scenes, including a strenuous dance number Thursday, his agent, Michael Livingston, said Friday. "Retirement," a comedy, would have been Davis' 81st movie as an actor.

Davis, who lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., with his wife of 56 years, actress Ruby Dee, was best known in recent years for his roles in Lee's raucous films about black urban life.

As a director, Davis paved the way for a wave of black-themed movies in the 1970s with "Cotton Comes to Harlem," an adaptation of the Chester Himes detective novel. Released in 1970, it was the first major crossover film demonstrating that white audiences would support movies about African Americans.

Inspired by such socially conscious artists as Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, Davis played a visible role in key events of the modern civil rights movement, including serving as master of ceremonies with Dee at the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. The actor also gave the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X, the fiery black leader assassinated in 1965.

Davis thought of himself primarily as a writer. He wrote essays, children's books and plays. His greatest success as a playwright was the 1961 race satire "Purlie Victorious," a classic contemporary black drama that ran on Broadway before it became "Purlie," a Tony- and Grammy-winning musical, and a movie.

"I am essentially a storyteller, and the story I want to tell is about black people," Davis once said. "Sometimes I sing the story, sometimes I dance it, sometimes I tell tall tales about it. But I always want to share my great satisfaction at being a black man at this time in history."

Last year he and Dee received Kennedy Center honors for their lifetime achievements in the arts. In 1995, President Clinton gave them the National Medal of the Arts.

Entertainer Harry Belafonte, who shared the platform with Davis at many civil rights events over the years, called his friend "a remarkable warrior."

"He was very courageous in his commitment to social and political causes," Belafonte told The Times on Friday.

"He walked in the shadow of men like Paul Robeson, W.E.B Du Bois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He was the embodiment of all those courageous people," Belafonte said. "I think he worked very hard at passing on to subsequent generations not only a deep and rich sense of their history but encouraged them to become more noble in their demands of life, governance and society. I think African Americans in particular are huge beneficiaries of his presence in our midst."

Davis' struggles as a black man in a racist society began in Cogdell, Ga., where he was born Dec. 18, 1917. The eldest of five children of a railroad worker who later took up herbal medicine, he was named Raiford Chatman Davis. His parents called him R.C.

When his mother registered his birth, the county clerk misunderstood her and thought she said "Ossie" instead of "R.C." As Davis recounted in his memoirs, "The man was white. Mama and I were black and down in deepest Georgia. So the matter of identification was settled. Ossie it was, and Ossie it is till this very day."

He grew up amid the gruesome realities of ritual lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. But what he found more damaging to his developing sense of manhood was the psychological violence inherent in everyday encounters with the white world. He wrote frankly about these -- and his acquiescence in what he called "niggerization" -- in a 1998 memoir, "With Ossie & Ruby, In This Life Together."

When he was no more than 6 or 7 years old, Davis recounted, he was walking home from school when two white police officers called out to him. They took him to the station, where they teased and laughed at him for an hour. But Davis was not afraid or upset. "They laughed at me," he said, "but the laughter didn't seem mean or vindictive."

At one point, one of the officers picked up a bottle of cane syrup and poured it over Davis' head. "They laughed as if it was the funniest thing in the world, and I laughed, too," Davis recalled. "Then the joke was over, the ritual complete. They gave me several hunks of peanut brittle and let me go."

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