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Ruby Dee And Ossie Davis: Their Activism Is No Act

They jointly decided they'd read King's famous letter from jail before the gathering. Then their lungs took over: They sang it. "We got up and let it rip!" he says. "We sung that sucker. It rang."

"We were the 'be there' people," she says of the movement.

"I didn't know they'd give it to people like us," says Ruby Dee of the Kennedy Centor Honors. " . . . I always thought of it as something you watch on TV." (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

_____Kennedy Center Honors_____
Photo Gallery: Honorees
Warren Beatty
Elton John
Joan Sutherland
John Williams

Every year since 1978

the Kennedy Center has saluted a handful of national icons for their "lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts." This year's honorees are to be celebrated tonight with a gala performance and dinner at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The show will be broadcast Dec. 21 at 9 p.m. on Channel 9.

Be there: Ruby and Ossie and Adam Clayton Powell and Jackie Robinson. And Martin. And A. Philip Randolph. And maybe Malcolm. And often James Farmer. And sometimes Peter, Paul and Mary. And souls you've never heard of, important, anonymous, gone to history.

They'd all be there, somewhere, anywhere, some fight, some protest.

"They set a high standard for all of us -- as actors and individuals," says Billie Allen, a New York theatrical director who has known the couple for decades and recently directed Dee onstage. "What unifies them is their devotion to the struggle."

Davis befriended Malcolm X during his tensions with the Nation of Islam. "Malcolm would ride out to our house, all by himself, just to talk," he says, touched still that a man of Malcolm's renown would be standing there on the front porch, ringing the doorbell, holding his hat in his hand.

Malcolm died and Martin died and so many others. Who remembers Hilda Simms, that glorious stage actress who died in 1994? Davis and Dee do.

"Hilda was beautiful," he says. "Talented, passionate. But America was not ready for Hilda."

"It was the hardships of being discriminated against," Dee says of the actress, who many black performers hoped would become, like some others, a crossover star.

"There was Ethel, Dorothy, Lena" -- as in Waters, Dandridge and Horne.

They were all on a first-name basis.

Who remembers Canada Lee? One of those actors done in by McCarthyism, he died in 1952, penniless. "There were certain resources," says Davis, "that Robeson had in all departments that were not available to Canada, who paid the price of being bad and black -- with no backup."

They're always reading scripts. He's putting the finishing touches on a couple of plays. She plans to get back onstage next year.

"It's been a wonderful life -- so far," Davis says, turning to his wife. "No pressure now, love."

"Long as you didn't say was," Dee chimes.

And they're shoulder to shoulder again, caught in each other's cackling.

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