Ossie Davis

Ossie Davis

: Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com


* African American actor and political activist
* Pro-Communist, anti-capitalist
* Frequent speaker at anti-war demonstrations
* “It was only natural that black men should associate their own hopes … with the promises of socialism.”
* Husband of actress Ruby Dee
* Died in February 2005


Ossie Davis was born as Raiford Chatman Davis in Cogdell, Georgia on December 18, 1917. He acquired the name Ossie when his mother’s pronunciation of the child’s initials, “R.C.,” was misunderstood by the county clerk employee in Clinch River, Georgia, who recorded the boy’s birth.

After graduating from high school, Davis attended Howard University, where, in a course on black literature, he was introduced to the writings of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. He was also influenced by philosophy professor Alain Locke, who encouraged him to learn more about the theater. Heeding that advice, Davis left Howard after three years in order to pursue his ambitions as a playwright and actor in New York City, where he joined a small Harlem theater company called the Rose McClendon Players.

When Davis enlisted in the military, he was stationed in Liberia with the 25th Station Hospital—the first black medical unit deployed abroad.

After completing his military service during World War II, Davis returned to New York City to resume his stage career, making his Broadway debut in Jeb in 1946. During auditions for that show, which were held in 1945, he met Ruby Dee, a young actress whom he would eventually marry in 1948. Davis and Dee went on to have three children together: Guy Davis, Nora Day, and Hasna Muhammad.

In the late 1940s, Davis took courses in playwriting at Columbia University’s School of General Studies.

During an entertainment-industry career that spanned approximately 66 years (1939-2005), Davis played roles in scores of films, television productions, and stage presentations. Among the more noteworthy films in which Davis appeared were The Joe Louis Story (1953), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), Gladiator (1992), Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992), Grumpy Old Men (1993), and Get on The Bus (Spike Lee’s 1996 celebration of Louis Farrakhan‘s Million Man March).

For a comprehensive list of the shows with which Davis was involved, click here and here.

Leftwing Activist

According to The New York Times, Davis “had a brief flirtation with the Young Communist League, which he said ended when he was drafted into the Army in 1942.”

According to Indypendent.org, Davis and Ruby Dee “supported the most radical wings of the Black liberation movement, such as the [Communist Party]-led Civil Rights Congress, as early as 1946.

The couple went on to become dedicated activists for all manner of leftwing causes. Indeed, Dee would later describe herself and her husband as “foot soldiers, ready, willing and able to do our part in the struggle.”

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Davis was a member of Hollywood SANE, a local chapter of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. (In the early 1980s, SANE would merge with its sister organization, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, and eventually become known as the Peace Action Network.)

Davis’ rising celebrity as an actor during the 1960s provided him with a platform from which he could disseminate his political views to a wide audience.

Becoming involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement of that decade, both Davis and Dee were active in the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Moreover, Davis was a personal friend of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X,

In 1963, Davis and Dee established the Association of Artists for Freedom, which held fundraisers for the Black Panther Party.

In 1963 as well, Davis and Ruby Dee served as masters of ceremonies for that year’s March on Washington which featured Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1965, Davis delivered a eulogy for the slain Malcolm X, praising his murdered friend as “our own Black shining prince” and “our living, black manhood.”

Passionately opposed to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Davis and Dee participated in a September 24, 1965 “Sing-In for Peace” concert at Carnegie Hall, and a February 20, 1966 “Read-In for Peace in Vietnam.”

They also were signatories to the 1966 “Voters’ Pledge Campaign” vowing to support antiwar political candidates. Other signatories of the VPC petition included Roger Baldwin, Julian Bond, Erich Fromm, Michael Harrington, John Lewis, Thomas Merton, B.F. Skinner, and Benjamin Spock.

Moreover, Davis was a member of the Ad Hoc Committee of Veterans for Peace in Vietnam.

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 and Ruby Dee were sponsors 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.

Davis was an initiating sponsor of the Herbert Aptheker Testimonial Dinner held on April 28, 1966 in New York City — an event celebrating Aptheker’s 50th birthday, the publication of his 20th book, and the 2nd anniversary of the launch of the American Institute for Marxist Studies which Aptheker had founded in 1964. Most of the event’s speakers, organizers, and sponsors were known members or supporters of the Communist Party USA.

For many years, Davis candidly proclaimed his pro-Communist, anti-capitalist views. In 1967, for instance, he penned an article in the Communist journal New World Review deriding capitalism and praising the Soviet Union. In the piece, he wrote:

“If all the great and bragged-about benefits of the capitalist system were true beyond cavil, it would, from the viewpoint of us who are its historic victims, still stand condemned. It is a system to which we, the black people of the United States, have never belonged save as the degraded means to somebody else’s end. First as slaves, then as a source of cheap labor. Now as a seemingly endless supply of cannon-fodder for the needs of that system in its attempt to swallow up the world as it is now trying to do in Vietnam. . . .

“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. A future he frequently places beyond the bounds of this world, where he would surely receive his reward, not down here on earth–but up there in heaven. . . . [But] since our religion counciled [sic] us always to look both ways–‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.’–we searched each passing day for signs and portents.

“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, a system of true equality ultimately to be formulated as ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,’ it was only natural that black men should associate their own hopes and their own expectations with the promises of socialism.

“And so it is natural that today black men should salute that country and that people who fifty years ago turned their backs on the past and struck out boldly to build a wholly different kind of society. Just as it is natural for us to find in the example of the Russian people enduring solace for all our struggles ahead, and a constant reminder that ‘what men have done, men can do.’” [Emphasis in the original]

In 1968, Davis was a signatory to a letter published by the San Francisco Chronicle, stating that there was “little fundamental difference between the assassin’s bullet which killed Dr. King on April 4, [1968], and the police barrage which killed [Black Panther Party member] Bobby James Hutton two days later” — because both killings were “attacks aimed at destroying the nation’s black leadership.” Additional signers of the letter included such notables as Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Elizabeth Hardwick, and Susan Sontag.

In June 1968, Davis was a featured speaker at the two-day founding convention of New York State’s Freedom and Peace Party, an ideological sister group of the California-based Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) dedicated to building “a mass based socialist party throughout the country.”

In 1971, Davis was an initiating sponsor of the American-Korean Friendship and Information Center, a Communist Party USA front group whose aim was to promote the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and South Korea.

In his Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Francis X. Gannon reports that over the years, Davis developed affiliations with:

Davis and Ruby Dee also demonstrated in support of the atom spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell.

On another occasion, Davis and Dee attended a rally in honor of the Fidel Castro regime’s Communist revolutionary, Che Guevara.

Davis was a sponsor of the Campaign for One Million Voices to Expel South Africa From the UN, a Communist Party USA front created in approximately 1974. The Campaign put out an undated brochure — printed by the CPUSA print shop “Prompt Press” — titled “We Who Support Human Rights … DEMAND the expulsion of South Africa from the UN!”

When the New York-based radical-left magazine the Guardian issued a March 1979 emergency appeal for donations in an effort to save the publication from bankruptcy, Davis endorsed the appeal. Originally named the National Guardian, the magazine was cited by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 as “a virtual official propaganda arm of Soviet Russia.”

Davis served on the Committee of Sponsors for a March 28, 1982 gala luncheon titled “We Will Make Peace Prevail! Disarmament Over Confrontation, Life Over Death,” held at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City and organized by the New World Review, a Communist Party USA (CPUSA) publication. Virtually all of the participants were affiliated with the CPUSA.

Davis passionately opposed America’s involvement in the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991.

In 1994, Davis was an initiator of the International Peace for Cuba Appeal, an affiliate of the International Action Center. Other noteworthy initiators included Philip AgeeNoam ChomskyJohn Conyers, and Charles Rangel.

Davis was an endorser of an October 1998 Brecht Forum event at Cooper Union in New York City, titled the “Communist Manifestivity to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.”

In 1999, Davis and Dee were both arrested while protesting the fatal shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police.

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.[1]

On February 26, 1999 in New York, Davis spoke at an “Evening of Justice for Mumia” rally  to promote the upcoming “Millions for Mumia” march in Philadelphia — scheduled for April 24, Mumia’s birthday.

On May 7, 2000 in the Madison Square Garden Theater, Davis spoke at an “A Day for Mumia” rally before 6,000 people. Other participants included actor Ed Asner, hip-hop artist Mos Def, attorney Johnnie Cochran, former New York Mayor David Dinkins, and many more.

Eight days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, Davis lent his name to a Statement titled “Justice not Vengeance,” which called on the U.S. to eschew a military response, and to instead bring the perpetrators to justice in a courtroom. The Statement read, in part:

“We foresee that a military response would not end the terror. Rather, it would spark a cycle of escalating violence, the loss of innocent lives, and new acts of terrorism. As citizens of this great nation, we support the efforts being made to find those behind the acts of terror. Bringing them to justice under the rule of law — not military action — is the way to end the violence…. The laws that protect our civil liberties and freedoms in the United States are part of what define us as a nation. They must not be abridged; to do so would offer victory to those who wrought these vengeful acts.”

Other notable signatories to the “Justice not Vengeance” Statement included: Harry Belafonte, John Cavanagh, Medea Benjamin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Mike Farrell, Margaret Gage, Danny Glover, Randy Hayes, Michael Klare, Michael Lerner, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Ratner, Edward Said, Martin Sheen, Gloria Steinem, Cora Weiss, and Ruby Dee.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the start of America’s war on terror, Davis was a featured speaker at a number of anti-war demonstrations organized by groups like International ANSWER, the International Action Center, and United For Peace and Justice.

In 2002, Davis served on the advisory board of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

Also in 2002, Davis was a signatory to the Not In Our Name (NION) anti-war “Statement of Conscience.” Drafted by members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, this Statement specifically condemned the George W. 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 2002 as well, Davis and Ruby Dee donated up to $2,499 to the Center for Constitutional Rights.

In 2003, Davis was on the advisory board of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Preceding the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Davis was a signatory to “Bush Can Be Stopped: A Letter to the Left,” which aimed to prevent the re-election of George W. Bush. The letter stated:

“The Bush Administration … has demolished whatever minimal stability has been achieved in treaties and agreements over the last half century to reduce the threat of nuclear war. It openly seeks world domination through military force and preemptive war … Its arrogant and reckless quest for a new US empire is inflamed by a frightening fundamentalist religious zeal. The Bush Administration is conducting a cruel war on the poor while outrageously lining the pockets of its corporate supporters…. Using its fraudulent ‘war on terrorism’ and playing on the public’s fears after 9/11, the Bush Administration has savaged the rights of immigrants and foreign nationals, has fanned racism, conducted arrests without warrants … and is now preparing an even more repressive Patriot Act II while packing the courts with compliant right-wing ideologues.”

The 2004 letter also exhorted the American public to support such organizations as MoveOn, US Labor Against War, United for Peace and Justice, and Win Without War. Davis’s fellow signers included Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Ruby Dee, Manning Marable, Robert Meeropol, Michael RatnerPete Seeger, and Tim Wise, among many others.

During his life, Davis’ political donations were directed chiefly to Democratic candidates. Recipients included Charles RangelBernie SandersAl GoreCorrine Brown, Louise Slaughter, Barbara Lee, Carol Moseley-Braun, Harvey Gantt, Nita Lowey, and David Paterson. In 1999, Davis also made a financial contribution to the pro-abortion group EMILY’s List.


Davis died of natural causes on February 4, 2005, in a Miami Beach hotel. 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.

Additional Information

Davis was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.

In 1998, Davis and Ruby 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.” “We decided to give ourselves permission to sleep with other partners if we wished,” Davis wrote, “as long as what we did was honest as well as private, and that neither of us exposed the family to scandal or disease.” “Looking back,” he added, “I’d say no matter what did or did not happen, we freed each other, and in doing that we also freed ourselves. Sex is fine, but love is better.”

In 2004, Davis and Dee were co-recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, an award given annually to performing artists.


  1. 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.

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