“Speaking Freely” show recorded Nov. 28, 2000, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and America. I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. Joining us today is a distinguished actor, playwright, director, and activist whose remarkable work spans more than half a century, Mr. Ossie Davis. Welcome. It’s great to have you here.
Ossie Davis: Great to be here.
Paulson: I went back, and I read any number of press clips about your career over the years, and it seems like every reference to you mentions you as both an actor and an activist. Have the two always been inseparable?
Davis: For me, yes. It — the arts, for the black community, were always a form of our politics, our protests. I would imagine — and I tell people this sometimes — that when we were slaves, you know, huddled in the work camps and all, there must have been times when the old master sent down to the slave quarters and said, “That gal who was singin’ as I crossed the field — the senator’s coming tonight; get her up to the house.” And that girl would be taken and bathed and put on her best clothes. She’d come to the house, she’d sing, and the master would be absolutely ecstatic. The senator would be smiling. So, out of the fullness of his heart, he would say to her, “Ah, you done good, gal. What can I do for you? What do you want to show my appreciation?” And then she would say, in addition to a few things for herself, “Well, if we could have some corn that didn’t have bugs in it or if we had a place where the water didn’t come in the roof, we sure would feel better.” So, our arts were always, from the very beginning, a means of protest. It was the one way we had where we were free to truly declare that we were human beings and not cattle. So, art was always very political for us. And, when I came into the theater, the people who were most important to me were the heroes of the theater at that time — Paul Robeson and Canada Lee and Lena Horne. And they were all a part of the struggle. So, I came in at that level and sort of joined the theater and joined in the struggle. And they were always, and still are, in my mind, intertwined in my experience.
Paulson: When you entered the business of theater, were there African-American performers who didn’t want any part of the politics?
Davis: Oh, yes, there were African-American performers who didn’t want to be politically active, because they knew — and they were correct — that they were exposing themselves. In other words, they struggled so hard to get what little was there in the way of the crumbs, and now here we came along saying, “Never mind the crumbs. Go out and take a stand and march and, you know, show yourself.” Said, “Don’t be a fool. We just got in here. They gave us the opportunity. Let’s just be quiet and make the best of it.”
Paulson: At the very dawning of your career as an actor, I understand you saw Marion Anderson on that historic date in which she sang in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Can you talk about the controversy and your feeling about her and what that performance felt like?
Davis: Yes, yes. Well, I was a student at Howard University. Now, I had heard Marion Anderson sing on records and various other things and was very impressed with who she was. She was supposed to come to Washington to sing for the students at a church. The church caught fire, burned down. So, where can we hold this concert? Somebody says, “Why not Constitution Hall?” We tried Constitution Hall. Daughters of the American Revolution, who were white, said, “Oh, no, we can’t have a black woman singing at the Constitutional Hall. No.” Mrs. Roosevelt, who was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, heard about it and became incensed. I think she resigned. And then she, on her own initiative, decided to find Marion Anderson a place to sing worthy of this artist. So, she and Harold Ickes and several others made available to Marion Anderson the front steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And I think it was April 16th — Easter — a cold and dreary day. And Marion Anderson was on the front steps in her mink coat, as it, as it were. But standing there, there were 75,000 people, of course, and the student body was included — standing there listening to her. All of a sudden, I had a transformation that was almost of a religious nature. Something in her singing, something in her voice, something in her demeanor entered me and opened me up and made me a free man. And in a sense, I never became — I never lost that. So, she became the kind of angel of my redemption through her art, and also her example taught me, in a very concise fashion, exactly what I wanted to be about. I wanted to be able to do with writing what she was able to do with music and song. And there was, in addition, Paul Robeson whose music, you know, moved people. Lena Horne — people at that time. So — but Marion Anderson on that particular day, you know, opened the doors of my prison, and I walked out a free man.
Paulson: And it appears that, from the very beginning of your career as an actor, you stepped right in to the political movement, and you embraced the cause. In your wonderful autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby, you talk with great humor about the blacklisting years — a dark period for performers, and yet you seem to take it in stride. There’s one wonderful scene in the book about people eager to serve — I guess they were a form of summons on you, and, and you were hiding out. Can you talk a little bit about your experience during those years?
Davis: Yes. This is in 1954, 1955. And Ruby and I were working in an off-Broadway production called “The World of Sholom Aleichem.” Well, in the summer, we were invited to go up to a summer camp to do “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and while we were there, some committee thought that the summer camps were beginning to be infested with Reds and communists. So, the state decided they’d have an investigation, and they sent out subpoenas for all the people in the camps who might have a Red association. And they had two subpoenas for Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, but they couldn’t find Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. You know, they looked around, and they were nowhere to be seen. The problem was that they expected all the actors to be white. So, seeing us there, they thought we were either waiters or, or maids and paid no attention to us. Well, they stayed all day trying to find Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and nobody in the camp would identify us or say, “Well,” they’d say, “they were here, but they’re not here anymore.” They came to the show that night, and they saw the production we were doing. We were doing “Cherry Orchard” — Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard.” And I had a part in it, and Ruby had a part in it. And as they sat in the audience, they saw where they had gone awry. “Oh, that’s Ruby Dee; that’s Ossie Davis.” Well, they waited politely till the end of the show, and they came backstage to serve us with the subpoenas. Meanwhile, the people — the cast and crew — knew what was happening — that the process servers were there, and they were trying to get Ruby and Ossie. So, they said, “What shall we do? How shall we save these two stalwarts from the process servers?” And somebody — the son of J. Edward Bromberg, a distinguished actor — came up with the idea that we should hide in the clothes basket, you know. So, they put us in the clothes basket, put some clothes on top of us. And it was a wicker basket. And we hid. And while we hid, the men from the state came — “Where’s Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis?” “Well, they’re gone.” They looked, and they searched, and they waited. Finally, they gave up. They went away. That night, our friends took us — got an automobile for us, and we got into the car, and we left the camp and came back to our home in Mt. Vernon, New York. And that was the end of the production as far as we were concerned. But I suppose to this very day there must be somebody out there with, with some subpoenas for Ruby and Ossie who haven’t found us yet. We’re still on the, on the run.
Paulson: You and Ruby Dee have had a remarkable partnership, a remarkable marriage. And it’s detailed in the book. Did both of you come to the relationship with a similar passion for, for the movement?
Davis: Yes, we did. And it was sort of the normal thing to do. My commitment to the struggle began when I was a boy in Waycross, Georgia. And my parents, you know, were involved in trying to get schooling for us, trying to get votes, and you know, trying to do things that would better the lot of black people. So, even as — and, and, and the high school that I went to, our teachers, you know, felt strongly about the question of freedom. And they, they used to instill in us that everything we did — the way we spelled a word, the way we walked down the street — you know, had some, resonance in the outer community, and they spoke to the condition of black people. So, you mustn’t do anything to cast aspersion on black people. On the other hand, one of the things that the white community would listen to was us as we sang. Or they would watch us as we danced. So, our arts, even in those days, were ways of making a statement to the community about who we were. So, I grew up in that surrounding, and it was a natural part of my training as a human being. Ruby grew up in Harlem, but her mother here was roughly involved in the same kind of thing. I remember the NAACP trying to get better schools, concerned about what was happening in the outer world. When I came back from World War II — this was before I met Ruby — already the response to the, the return of the black soldier was of grave concern to the black community. Black soldiers were being lynched. And there was a soldier in North Carolina who had his eyes gouged out — Isaac Woodard. And two soldiers in Georgia walking with their wives were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Another young man in Georgia trying to vote was killed. The NAACP in, in New York was active and agitational and concerned with these things. And we, as members of the theater, were approached by the NAACP and by the Urban League to make ourselves involved, to help them raise funds, to help them spread the word, to take part in the pageants that they put on. So, it was sort of a natural progression. And to take a part in those pageants was not just to be able to do something in the cause of liberation freedom for black folks. You’d be on the stage with the Paul Robeson or Lena Horne or Canada Lee or some of the others. And, of course, who — that alone was sufficient to get us involved. But the theaters from which we came were dedicated in their own way to try and improve the lot of the actors. And that was — that has a civil rights aspect to it. So, coming into the theater was the result, we thought, of struggle. And when we got in, we had to do something about all those lynchings that were taking place, particularly in the South. There was no federal anti-lynching law, and Robeson was active in trying to get one. And whenever there was a crime in the South — if a Willy McGee, you know, was in trouble or a Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons in Florida or the Martinsville Seven being accused of raping somebody or a Harry T. Moore — somebody put a bomb under his — in his room at Christmastime. We were a part of that reservoir of workers and actors who would spring into action. So, it was just a part of being in the theatrical, theatrical community, as far as I was concerned, you know. It took no persuading. It took no deciding “I must do this.” It was being done, and I just participated in it.
Paulson: When Harry Belafonte was here, he said with some amusement — recalled this incident where he got a call from “The Ed Sullivan Show” saying, “You can’t be on next week; you’ve been blacklisted.” And he recounted how he demanded to see the list, which they wouldn’t produce for him. Did you ever face anything that overt, where people would say, say, “You’re not getting this job”?
Davis: No, I personally did not. It was later when I was told, for example, that I had been up for a part, and they had decided to pass me over. I never knew that directly. But Ruby was involved directly, because she was in — on a slate drawn together by the actors in AFTRA deliberately to fight Red Channels, which was a listing of actors on the blacklist. And the people in the union said, “Hey, we’re sick of this. We are going to run a slate of people who will, you know, say ‘down’ with this particular thing.” And one of the people on that slate was Ruby Dee. And, therefore, she was overtly chastised and listed and named. And subsequently, when I got my dossier from the state — not from the federal government. I got two dossiers. But I got one from the state, and one of the crimes of which I was accused was being a fellow traveler to my wife. [Laughing] Oh, such a crime. That was a very nice crime if you gotta be a criminal. That’s the way to go.
Paulson: You are able to talk about the blacklist from a personal perspective, but you can also talk about some historic figures — people you met who changed the path of mankind, literally.
Davis: Yes. Yes.
Paulson: Do you recall the day you met Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Davis: I happened to see him — I went to a church, invited by some ministers — my minister — to come and meet this young man, this Martin Luther King. And there was a kind of skepticism among the ministers, because Martin had this strange doctrine about nonviolence and all this stuff, which we didn’t thoroughly understand. And, so, the ministers believed in nonviolence, but they believed that Martin was gonna get his head shot off and ours, too, you know. So, who was this guy? And there was a kind of holding off from this weird man who comes up from the South. So, there was this meeting at the church where Martin had been asked to speak to a group of ministers, and the ministers were there looking at him — “Who is this guy?” And Martin began slowly to talk. And as he began to talk, you know, and the vowels and the consonants began to roll — and he is a master of oratory, you know. And he began to speak in that particular rhythm that all the ministers knew and were affected by. So, in a short while, the ministers, you know, left their frozen posture and began, “Yes! Speak! Speak! Stand for it!” Finally, my pastor — he was sitting in the back — jumped up, ran down the aisle and up into the pulpit and grabbed Reverend King and hugged him. So, I was privileged to see him at the moment when these hard ministers opened their hearts and decided to accept him. It was a marvelous, marvelous experience.
Paulson: And clearly he moved many that day. A good number of years later, you moved people when you gave the eulogy for Malcolm X. That had to be a very difficult day for you.
Davis: Yes, it was. And yet my motivation was never private in that, I was a part of an attempt — well-organized in the black community — to keep the lid on, to keep things quiet and orderly, and to try and give this stormy young man the kind of burial we thought was appropriate to who he was. If you’ll remember, he had been assassinated one Sunday afternoon, and the whole community was in an uproar. And then on Tuesday following that Sunday, the mosque where he used to be a minister — Malcolm X — was firebombed. So, the police department, every morning, would send two or three busloads of white-helmeted police into the Harlem community to patrol, try and keep things in order. And then I was asked, primarily because everybody sort of knew me and knew Ruby — and I was not identified as a fierce partisan of Malcolm or any of the others. And they thought that maybe I, being sort of neutral, you know, could help maintain the tone of, of order and discipline and dignity that we wanted to show forth in the neighborhood. And that’s why I was chosen. It was a personal moment. I had known him closer than I knew any of the other leaders — Ruby and I. And we’d come to love him almost as a member of the family. So, it was saying good-bye to somebody I personally loved. But the basic motivation behind the speech was to help the community hold the lid on so we could say good-bye to the man in a way we thought he deserved.
Paulson: You know, throughout your career, you have taken on many causes. You have fought for a great many things and, and yet had to keep fighting. There had to be some victories along the way — things that allowed you to sort of re-nourish yourself and put up the good fight, because it couldn’t be 50 years of battles lost. You had, you had to feel good about some of the projects. Talk about some of the victories. Talk about some of the differences you saw happen.
Davis: Well, all right, let’s say, for example, that in 1959, a young lady named Lorraine Hansberry wrote a play called — “A Raisin in the Sun.” First young black lady to do such a thing. And Lloyd Richards, a black director, directed that play. And it was about our struggle. And then, spurred on by that, I wrote a play — a comedy — took it to the same producer. And in 1961, he put my play on Broadway. Oh, that was a tremendous triumph. On opening night, we found that in the audience was Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, who was 90 years old at the time. And he came backstage and climbed some steps to tell us how much he appreciated the play.
Paulson: A play called “Purlie Victorious.”
Davis: “Purlie Victorious.” And then one matinee day, I looked down in the first row, and there’s another shiny young man looking straight up at me named Martin Luther King. I really went up and had to get myself together. And previous to that, at another matinee, Malcolm X had come to see the play. And he said, “You’re trying to do with laughter, you know, what I’m trying to do with, with protests and all of that.” So, their blessing and their appreciation and their acceptance of Ruby and me as a kind of part of the inner circle was — oh, my God. There’s nothing that could beat that. And being associated with Paul Robeson, going to London in ’64, working in a film called “The Hill”; Ruby coming to visit me; and Paul Robeson letting Ruby and me have the keys to his London apartment. So, there we were living in this apartment of this great, huge figure. That was a tremendous achievement. Just — oh, my — it was full of achievements for us, really. And we were very happy about the whole thing.
Paulson: In addition to achievements you’ve made — in addition to your accomplishments, there have been any number of contributions you’ve made to organizations that are trying to make a difference. A very recent example is a new documentary called “Freedom Never Dies,” which is the legacy of Harry T. Moore down in Brevard County, Florida. You mentioned his, his death — a bombing at Christmastime. And you and Ruby did the narration on this. Do you turn anyone down?
Davis: I was trying to think. I’m sure we turned somebody down, but I can’t remember at the moment.
Paulson: I’m very glad you didn’t turn them down on this project. It’s, it’s an extraordinary documentary. It’ll be on PBS for a long time to come.
Davis: Well, I thank you. But it, too, is a part of a responsibility that we feel that we owe to our people and to the world as, as actors and performers. There — there’s too little known in our country and in our culture about all the aspects of the black experience — their characters, heroes, villains, who have created marvelous things sometimes — and havoc — that the world knows too little about. So, a part of our job as performers and as writers is to find these people and give them visibility and give them their proper place, you know, in the cultural history of our country. We still want to see a proper play about Mammy — who she truly was. We know of her relationship to the babies and the children of the master, but what was her relationship to the children of hers — her own that she left in the shanty behind? Who was Mammy? We don’t know. Who was Uncle Tom? We don’t know. Well, as artists and as writers, that’s our job — to rescue these people from oblivion and invisibility and give them life and form so that our children and the rest of the world can say, “Yes, there was some wonderful people in that group.”
Paulson: You’ve done a wonderful job of accomplishing that throughout your career.
Davis: We tried.
Paulson: Thank you so much for joining us here.
Davis: Thank you.
Paulson: Our guest today has been Ossie Davis. I’m Ken Paulson. Back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and America. Hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
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