Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee raised three children of their own, and generations of Americans. From the beginning, they both wove their activism into their acting. In the jobs they took, the performing of their roles, and their own writing and productions, they taught their audiences about the possibilities of a world of equity. In his own words, from With Ossie and Ruby, Ossie explained, “…we triumphed, thanks to a strategy that assured us the victory: Simply, we learned how to belong to the people for whom we worked – mostly black people. They were, and still are, the audience that never made us rich, but never let us down.”
From the beginning, their work was a reflection of their lives, and the generations of racism and hope that came before them, and the dreams they had for those who would come after. During the McCarthy era, when a communist witch hunt attempted to silence Civil Rights dissenters, Ossie and Ruby were part of the growing number of artists in New York who refused to be silenced by their own government, and instead created conscious-raising art with Jews, like a middle finger to McCarthy. “We felt that we were among people who understood and appreciated what we had to share,” Ossie wrote (With Ossie and Ruby). Their work in the play The World of Sholom Aleichem brought them to Local 1199, Retail Drug Workers Union, a union representing mostly Jewish, Hispanic, and Black people interested in using art to further their goals of creating economic freedom for their members. Ossie wrote The People of Clarendon County for Union 1199, telling the story of the Briggs v. Elliott case, which was one of five argued under Brown v. Board of Education. Ossie and Ruby would continue to work on projects with 1199, the union Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would refer to has his favorite union.
Ossie and Ruby were personally committed to the Civil Rights movement- their lives, and the lives of their children depended on it. Ruby, specifically, was interested in bringing the two seemingly polar opposite Civil Rights leaders, Dr. King and Malcolm X together. Juanita Poitier and Ruby organized an informal summit to take place a year after the 1963 March on Washington (at which Malcolm was present, behind the scenes, Ruby reminds us in With Ossie and Ruby). They invited the luminaries of the movement, Dr. King, Malcolm, Dorothy Height, Whitney Young, Lorraine Hasberry, Roy Wilkins and A. Philip Randolph. Sidney Poitier also attended. Dr. King, jailed at the time, could not come, and sent an emissary. Imagine, the static of frenzied activity, just barely contained in these bodies of those who took up the mantle of their people without questioning, why me, but only asking, how do we move forward? Ruby recalls the discussion flowed naturally, and a plan to formulate a Declaration of Human Rights for Black Americans was made. Malcolm would visit Ossie and Ruby one last time, days before he would unveil the plans he had for the movement, days before he was assassinated.
When they appeared or worked together, Ossie was clearly the more loquacious one; Ruby meted out her words, spending time listening, and considering before speaking. On The History Makers An Evening with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (10/18/2002), Ruby recalled an ancient regret. She had once asked Malcolm to put his iconic rifle away in a room of her home, rather than leaving it in the rear window of the truck he drove, because there were to be photographers at a party she and Ossie held for Malcolm, and she didn’t want anyone to get nervous, seeing the photos with Malcolm’s gun in them. “Oh God, I think about it now” she recalls, “and I missed all those pictures- because I was intimidated, too. And now that I am older, I feel I am no longer intimidated, I am old enough to do anything I damn well please.”
Ossie and Ruby’s activism only increased as they got older. They took roles in the upstart Spike Lee’s movies, they focused on speaking and reaching out to the next generation, on the ultimate need to educate so we would not forget the dark past and repeat it. For Ruby, this is the natural work of those “65 and older- We have a few brain cells left, a few dollars in the bank- it’s time to make it time again,” she said in 2002, her cadence increasing with the urgency of her words, “We can’t go down the sink hole behind these people who are not worthy of what this country still represents.”
Ossie and Ruby’s legacy is that of education. They educated their children, their audiences, their people, and all Americans; they sought to lift us up, using their art as a vehicle. They never faltered, never let fear overcome or cower them. “We have to make absolutely sure that the materials of our lives are available to them,” Ossie said. And Ruby expounded, “I learned we have to cross-fertilize each other, in terms of thinking. And that the generations coming in do have something to offer and the frustrations that they experience are not to be taken lightly, and we can help, we can change, we can exchange ideas- And we can help save them- I think they’re waiting for us to-” (History Makers 10/18/2002)
Ruby’s words ring as true now as they did in 2002: We can’t go down the sink hole behind these people who are not worthy of what this country still represents. And it’s time now that we save ourselves.
for more on Ossie and Ruby: http://www.ossieandruby.com/
and, a bonus clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krUzdIvsw4s