WASHINGTON The death of the actor Ossie Davis on Feb. 4 received front-page treatment in many of the nation's major newspapers, coverage befitting a distinguished citizen who'd won both a Kennedy Center Honor and a National Medal of Arts in his lifetime. Still, some people probably took note of Davis' 80 film roles including, memorably, Da Mayor in "Do The Right Thing" and said, "Oh, that guy." He was the kind of performer who brought a character convincingly to life without chewing the scenery and hogging the spotlight.
It's possible that even folks who had heard Davis on the lecture circuit did not know that his many accomplishments included writing a successful Broadway play ("Purlie Victorious," 1961) and directing five feature films, including one of the first black-themed Hollywood movies to attract a substantial white audience ("Cotton Comes To Harlem," 1970). His many speeches, delivered in his charismatic baritone, were rarely if ever about himself.
I had the privilege of attending two of his public addresses, both of which were marvels of oratory. Davis' talks, although they often included perceptive observations about art, culture and history, usually returned to the importance of living a purposeful, politically committed life an effort he always called "the Struggle."
Davis was the very opposite of those celebrities who embrace the issue of the moment, show up briefly for a photo opportunity, and escape as soon as the flashbulbs have dimmed. With his wife, the amazingly talented actress Ruby Dee, Davis was a solid, reassuring presence at many of the pivotal moments of our nation's ongoing civil rights evolution. Photos show the couple marching on Washington, striding defiantly at Selma, protesting the death of Amadou Diallo. Davis was a good friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and a confidant of Malcolm X.
Regarding his political activities, Davis said he had been profoundly influenced by figures such as Paul Robeson, who said "The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I have made my choice." Like his role model, Davis chose the Struggle.
In deference to his stellar history of serving in the trenches, marching, fund raising and risking his career (How many other entertainers would have agreed to eulogize Malcolm X, as Davis did? How many stood by Paul Robeson when he got in trouble with the State Department, as Davis did?), few would have faulted him if he had chosen to devote his senior years to Jell-O commercials and cantankerous denunciations of the wayward poor.
But he appeared to have nothing of the curmudgeon in him. He continued to speak out on controversial topics in his customary blend of astute vision and exemplary humility.
His magnificent funeral tribute to Malcolm X has been quoted often in recent days, so as evidence I'll cite instead his speech at New York's Riverside Church on Mar. 27, 2003, following the launch of the invasion of Iraq.
"I am not as smart as Miss Condoleezza Rice," he began, "though she is yet my sister, nor so faithful unto death as Gen. Colin Powell, though he is yet my brother."
Davis went on to find fault with the administration to which Rice and Powell had pledged their loyalty, not once resorting to the lowbrow name-calling that is often substituted for genuine criticism of the pair.
"I am not morally arrogant," he said. "I accept the fact that maybe this generation was not the one designed by fate to bring peace to the world. But I also believe that it is necessary to stay on the march, to be on the journey, to work for peace wherever we are at all times, because the liberty we cherish, which we would share with the world, demands eternal vigilance."
In 1998, Davis and Dee commemorated their 50th wedding anniversary with the publication of a joint memoir. "We have managed to stay close to the very heart and center of the Struggle, invited in by whoever needed our talents," Davis wrote. "And yet we have remained in very essential ways detached and self-sufficient. Children of the Struggle, indeed it is not inconceivable that, had it been called for, we would have given our lives, but never did it become the ruler of our lives."
If the Struggle did not rule their lives, then what did? Later he provided the answer:
"Love, in the end, is the object of existence."
Ossie Davis was loved. And he will be missed.