Ossie Davis: An Appreciation (NPR, Text/Audio)

(FinalCall.com) – It is not our custom to loudly eulogize our heroes and heroines. We prefer to give them flowers while they live, when they can indeed smell them!

But on the passing of the great actor Ossie Davis, we pause to pay our respects because of the sterling examples of his life, his career, and indeed his marriage to his partner, actress Ruby Dee–a marriage which lasted an astonishing 56 years!


He belonged to us. He exists in us. We can be, and be more, every day more. Larger, kinder, truer, more honest, more courageous, and more loving because Ossie Davis existed and belonged to all of us. -Maya Angelou

Thousands of mourners filled Riverside Church in Harlem for the funeral of Mr. Davis Feb. 13. He died Feb. 4 at the age of 87 while on location for a film in Florida.

For five decades, he built a career as a distinguished actor, a playwright and a director. He was renowned for his civil rights activism and he was an indelible figure in the American struggle for equality for Black people.

In his eulogy, Harry Belafonte said, “Among many gifts mastered, he was foremost a master of language. He understood the power of words and used them to articulate our deepest hope for the fulfillment of our oneness, with all humanity. Ossie Davis was born into a time of great promise. And guided by his fervent dedication to justice, he wasted no opportunity in defending the causes of the poor, the humiliated, the oppressed.

“He was our troubadour.

Poet Maya Angelou said, “He belonged to us. He exists in us. We can be, and be more, every day more. Larger, kinder, truer, more honest, more courageous, and more loving because Ossie Davis existed and belonged to all of us.

“At the funeral, Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis offered a musical tribute.

Former President Bill Clinton said, “Ossie Davis would have been a very good President of the United States.” Better than that, he was in fact the Griot of the United States. He was our Grandfather. His oral traditions sang with wisdom, the joys and the challenges in all our lives.

While he is remembered fondly by many for capturing the mourning and the anger of Black people in his stirring eulogies at the funerals of Brother Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he had an equally loyal following in the American heartland.

A native of Cogdell, Georgia, Mr. Davis hosted the annual Memorial Day Concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra at the U.S. Capitol for 11 years, from 1993 until 2004. He was also a staunch supporter of the Black Patriots Foundation, an organization that seeks to erect a permanent monument on the Mall in Washington to honor Black Revolutionary War Heroes.

His patriotism and powerful loyalty for his country remained despite his feelings about having served in a segregated hospital unit at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, and in Liberia, West Africa during World War II. And he was a spellbinding story teller.

“What a mighty oath we swore to one another, but never said a word,” Mr. Davis recalled at a National Press Club luncheon in 2002. “Faith through the death in each other, and also in the cause for which we were prepared to die.

“What if we did have to fight American racism with one hand and German fascism with the other? What else was new?” he continued. “We built an impregnable edifice in our minds, our hearts and in our imaginations–our own version of America by our own hands. Our own brand of patriotism, with a duty to each other and to all people, high as, if not higher than, our duty to our country–a Black man’s justification for fighting in a White man’s war.

“But in our deep and personal times and spaces, when quiet prevailed and everything was dark and pride of race and shame of segregation and the shabby way the Army treated us sometimes, when all of that was put aside, and every man was trapped within himself, we dreamed the dream that every soldier dreams, and prayed the self-same prayer:

‘Lord, this life of mine may not mean much to others, but it’s all I got. I am willing to die if I have to–for mamma, my loved ones, my people–even for my country. But don’t let it be for nothing.’

Ossie Davis “embraced the greatest forces of our times,” Mr. Belafonte recalled in his eulogy. “Paul Robeson, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Eleanor Roosevelt, A. Phillip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and so many, many more.

“At the time of one of our most anxious and conflicted moments, when ‘Our America’ was torn apart by seething issues of race, Ossie paused, at the tomb of one of our noblest warriors, and in the eulogy he delivered, insured that history would clearly understand the voice of Black people, and what Malcolm X meant to us in the African-African American struggle for freedom,” Mr. Belafonte continued.

May Allah (God) be pleased with Ossie Davis.