Ossie Davis was a prominent African American actor and political activist. During a film career that spanned nearly six decades (1950-2005), Davis played roles in 49 films, including The Joe Louis Story (1953), Do the Right Thing (1989), Gladiator (1992), Malcolm X (1992), Grumpy Old Men (1993), and Get on The Bus (Spike Lee's 1996 celebration of Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March). Davis also appeared in numerous television productions and stage presentations. For his work as an actor, he was named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame in 1989.
Davis was born in Cogdell, Georgia in December 1917. His given name was Raiford Chatman Davis. He acquired the name Ossie when his mother's pronunciation of his initials, “R.C.,” was misunderstood by the county clerk employee who recorded the boy’s birth.
Davis briefly attended Howard University and later Columbia University’s School of General Studies in the late 1930s. In 1948 he married Ruby Dee, a fellow leftwing activist who would later describe her husband and herself as “foot soldiers, ready, willing and able to do [our] part in the struggle.” Among the causes to which Davis and Dee most passionately devoted their energies were antiwar activism during the Vietnam War, and again in the post-9/11 era.
In 1998, Davis and Dee penned their autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby, in which they discussed at length their political activism as well their decision to have an “open marriage.” The pair also collaborated on a number of other publications, including: Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales From the Gulf States (2001); We Shall Overcome: The History of the Civil Rights Movement As It Happened (2004); and Life Lit by Some Large Vision: Selected Speeches and Writings (2006).
In the late 1950s and early 60s, Davis became involved with Hollywood SANE, a local chapter of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. In the early 1980s, SANE merged with its sister organization, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (FREEZE), and eventually became known as the Peace Action Network.
Davis’ celebrity as an actor during the 1960s provided him with a platform from which he could disseminate his political views to a wide audience.
He was a personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and he delivered eulogies at both of their funerals. At the 1965 funeral of Malcolm X, Davis characterized Malcolm as "a prince -- our own black shining prince! -- who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”
Davis also served as the Chairman of a memorial tribute to W.E.B. DuBois, the African-American scholar and communist.
In November 1965 Davis was a sponsor of the “March on Washington for Peace in Vietnam,” which was attended by 25,000 anti-war demonstrators and was organized by the Students for a Democratic Society, which later splintered into the domestic terrorist group Weatherman.
For many years, Davis candidly proclaimed his pro-Communist, anti-capitalist views. In 1967 he penned an article in the Communist journal New World praising the Soviet Union. In the piece, he wrote
"The black man's mightiest expectations have always been in the alternative which, though nowhere present, he dreamed about as a part of the future…. Thus fifty years ago when the good news came out of Russia that men there had decided to abandon capitalism and attempt to construct, here, 'on earth,' a system in which no man would be the hereditary victim of other men because of the color of his skin … it was only natural that black men should associate their own hopes and their own expectations with the promises of socialism."
In June 1968, Davis was a keynote speaker at the two-day founding convention of the Peace and Freedom Party of New York State, a regional offshoot of the California-based organization whose goal is to build “a mass based socialist party throughout the country.”
Francis X. Gannon reports that over the years, Davis had affiliations with: (a) Communist publications like New World Review and Morning Freiheit; (b) Communist fronts like the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (which eventually was absorbed by the Center for Constitutional Rights); the Citizens Committee for Constitutional Liberties; the American Peace Crusade; and the National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions; (c)Communist Party enterprises like Camp Midvale and the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee; and (d) leftwing outfits like Freedomways magazine; the Association of Artists for Freedom; the Liberation Committee for Africa; the Monroe Defense Committee; the Alexander Defense Committee; and the Charter Group for a Pledge of Conscience.
Davis also demonstrated in support of the atom spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell. On another occasion, he attended a rally in honor of the Castro regime's Communist revolutionary Che Guevara.
In 1999 Davis was a signatory to a “Call to Justice” initiative which proposed a nationwide “Mumia Awareness Week” devoted to overturning the purportedly wrongful conviction of cop-killer and leftist icon Mumia Abu-Jamal. Fellow supporters of this initiative included C. Clark Kissinger of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Robert Meeropol of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, and Sam Jordan of Amnesty International’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the start of the war on terror, Davis was a featured speaker at a number of anti-war demonstrations organized by groups like International ANSWER and United For Peace and Justice.
In 2002 he joined such celebrities as Ed Asner, Oliver Stone, Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda, Pete Seeger, Spike Lee, Bonnie Raitt, and Gore Vidal in signing the Not In Our Name (NION) anti-war "Statement of Conscience." Drafted by members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, this Statement specifically condemned the Bush Administration's "stark new measures of repression" and its "unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world." Davis also narrated an Internet announcement for NION, warning that the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was the beginning of America's "war on the world."
In 2004, Davis and Ruby Dee were co-recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, an award given annually to performing artists.
Davis and Dee parented three children: Guy Davis, Nora Day, and Hasna Muhammad.
During his life, Davis' political donations were directed chiefly to Democratic candidates. Recipients included Jesse Jackson, Charles Rangel, Bernie Sanders, Al Gore, Corrine Brown, and Barbara Lee. In 1999 Davis also made a financial contribution to EMILY’s List.
Davis died of natural causes on February 4, 2005, at the age of 87. His funeral was attended by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, movie director Spike Lee, Marxist professor Cornel West, entertainer Harry Belafonte, and former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. In lieu of flowers, Davis’ family asked that donations be made to such organizations as Oxfam America and Pacifica Radio.