Ossie Davis was wise in his choices and wiser still when he once made no choice at all.
He did not choose between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Each man was a transcendent leader of the America of the 1960s and perhaps for all times. Yet each side, blacks as well as whites, was moved to make a choice. Was it to be the nonviolent reformer-preacher or the so-called violent, revolutionary-minister?
Ossie Davis saw them as but different crescents of the same side of the same coin. Long before their African-American followers realized that the goals of King and Malcolm X, at bottom, were the same, Davis knew. And he knew it before the two men themselves dared sit down in the same room and talk.
Such was the wisdom of Ossie Davis. And it was wisdom born of courage for he lent each man not only his ear but his hands and his feet and the contents of his wallet. Both King and Malcolm X were men targeted by powerful forces backed by precision weapons and the awesome might of the state. It was unsafe to march in their rallies, show support or tarry too long at their homes. This was especially true for those with something to lose.
Davis had much to lose. As an actor, he depended upon backing from others with money and networks. But independence made him consider himself primarily a writer of essays, books for children and drama for the stage. "I am essentially a storyteller, and the story I want to tell is about black people," he said. "Sometimes I sing the story, sometimes I dance it, sometimes I tell tall tales about it. But I always want to share my great satisfaction at being a black man at this time in history."
Davis got his first glimpse of King around 1955 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem at the invitation of Adam Clayton Powell. Though wary of King's nonviolent stance, Davis went away convinced that the black community had found a new leader. Despite his moral and financial support of King and the civil-rights movement, Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee, continued working for the black struggle with their art.
In 1959, Davis appeared in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." The effort inspired him to put down on paper the race drama he had been carrying around in his head since his early days in Cogdell, Ga. With the rights movement brewing, wife Ruby voiced concern that Davis had flubbed the politics of his attempt at satire.
"Ossie," he remembered her saying, "these aren't people; these are stereotypes, a minstrel show that white folks love to laugh at." Satire, Davis knew, was not for the cynic. "Only the lover should be allowed to laugh at the ways of his people." Still, Davis thought he had pulled it off. He was convinced for all times that he had succeeded when Malcolm X, disobeying the strictures of his Messenger Elijah Muhammad, took in a preview of Davis' "Purlie Victorious" and gave it a thumbs up.
In 1961, "Purlie Victorious," a satire on black-white race relations made it to Broadway. Davis acted in his comedy that years later - after King and Malcolm X had finished their work - would make a splash as "Purlie," a Grammy-winning musical and a Hollywood black movie, "Gone Are the Days."
Davis became a close friend of Malcolm X. After his home in Queens had been torched, Malcolm repaired to the Davis home in New Rochelle during the week before his death. "He was not deterred from his main objective," Davis wrote, "to bridge the gap between him and the rest of the civil rights movement with an organization that would give him a broader base from which to operate, the details of which he planned to unveil that Sunday afternoon at the Audubon ballroom, where he was assassinated."
Davis agreed to give the eulogy for Malcolm X at the Faith Temple of God. Other churches, including Powell's Abyssinian Baptist, were pressured to deny their sanctuary to the bereaved family. It is impossible to imagine the threat of fire and bloodshed that hung over the funeral services.
Ossie Davis stood brave by his fallen comrade. "Here - at this final hour, in this quiet place - Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes - extinguished now, and gone from us forever." Davis went on to memorialize Malcolm as "a Prince - our own black shining Prince - who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so."
Others had rejected Malcolm in favor of King but Ossie knew this was a choice without wisdom. On April 5, 1968, Davis would offer his eulogy in Central Park for King.
"Martin Luther King was one of the bravest black men we have lost in this struggle. He left us the example of his death: He knew it was coming; he didn't run; he didn't change. He didn't back down. He went forward and met it like a black man always meets it."
On Feb. 4, Ossie Davis went forward and met it. He was 87.
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