"I am Ossie Davis, actor, writer, director, husband and father," he told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior in his clear, booming voice, "and like other poor black working-class people, I was able to pull myself up by my bootstraps -- but only because the federal government provided the boots."

Davis was one of 19 public figures -- including Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Barbara Tuchman and Justin Kaplan -- who testified at yesterday's hearing on the proposed 50 percent budget cut for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It was the first of a series of hearings called by subcommittee Chairman Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), a longtime supporter of the arts and the humanities. sToday, supporters of the National Endowment for the Arts will testify on the planned 50 percent cut in the NEA budget.

The Reagan administration has given federal funding for artistic and literary pursuits "a low priority," said Yates. "This attitude is unique among recent presidents." He cited the 16-year history of increasing budgets for both endownments, and quoted President Kennedy in 1962: "'I would hope in years ahead, the federal government would be prepared to play a proper role in encouraging the arts throughout the country.'"

Davis, who said that he was able to attend Howard University only because of a federal scholarship, told Yates, "I beg you, sir, not to ask only that the proposed budget request be restored. I suggest that we need to tell the government that funds must be augmented. [Office of Management and Budget head David] Stockman, with his powers, is not unlike Solomon approached by the two women, each claiming the same baby. I hope this committee wil help guide Mr. Stockman as he swings his ax."

"Everyone is concerned about national security," said Tuchman, author of "The Guns of August" and "A Distant Mirror." "What is national security? It is strength, and that strength is in the individual person. Jefferson believed that knowledge was strength. It doesn't just descend from on high. It must be promoted. I think the humanities do that."

Tuchman, who sits on the board of the New York Public Library, said that NEH grants had "literally saved some of the library's collections by encouraging private support. There's something about government showing belief in cultural institutions that stimulates individual donors and corporations."

Retired Lt. Gen James M. Gavin, author of two books and a former U.S. ambassador to France, agreed. "I've sat in so many board rooms, and I know they're just looking for reasons not to fund something," he said. "I think corporations would see [reduced government funding] as a lack of interest on the part of government and a reason for them not to contribute."

Justin Kaplan -- biographer, critic and author of "Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain," among other volumes -- also argued for funding to libraries. "Our libraries and their melancholy inventories of lost, stolen, mutilated and worn-out books symbolize the general situation of the humanities in a time of rising costs and shrinking budgets," said Kaplan.

Only one witness spoke in favor of the budget cuts -- independent film producer Julie Motz, who "enthusiastically" endorsed the reductions, arguing that keeping the endowments small was in the public interest and that no grant should exceed one-third the cost of the entire project.

Later in the day, the subcommittee heard testimony on funding for the federal Institute for Museum Services, which the Reagan administration has targeted for elimination. Among those urging restoration of funds were Roland Force, director of the Museum of the American Indian; George Rabb, director of the Chicago Zoological Park; and Rowena Stewart, director of the African-American Museum Association.

Yates could not predict how the hearings might affect congressional action on the endowment budgets. "We haven't heard all the testimony," he said. "I think a very good case can be made for resisting the 50 percent cut."