The great actor and political activist Ruby Dee died at the age of 91 on June 11. She had been married to Ossie Davis, another amazing actor and social activist, for almost 60 years, until his death in February 2005.
Dee and Davis achieved a powerful collaboration on stage, screen and in the struggle. Broadway marquees dimmed their lights on June 13 in tribute to Dee, as they did for Davis following his death.
Following her graduation from Hunter College in New York City, Dee performed on stage in productions by the American Negro Theater, located in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, as well as on Broadway in the early 1940s.
She played the sister of Sidney Poitier’s character in the ground-breaking 1950 anti-racist film “No Way Out,” which also starred Richard Widmark.
Her first major role on Broadway was in the 1959 stage production of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning “A Raisin in the Sun,” opposite Poitier. The story, about a Black family in Chicago who face racism when they attempt to move into an all-white neighborhood, is currently on Broadway starring Denzel Washington. The talented actor Sophie Okonedo, who recently won a Tony award playing the role originated by Dee, recognized her as one of her heroes.
When the great African-American singer and actor Audra McDonald won her record-breaking sixth Tony award this year for playing Billie Holiday, she also paid homage to Ruby Dee in her acceptance speech.
Dee met Davis, her future spouse, during the 1946 Broadway production of “Jeb.” She, Davis and many other pioneering African-American actors, female and male, faced decades-long racial barriers, especially in Hollywood films. It wasn’t until the 2007 film “American Gangster” — after almost a 60-year acting career — that Dee garnered her one and only Academy Award nomination. Davis was never nominated for an Oscar.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Spike Lee’s powerful film, “Do the Right Thing,” about racism in Brooklyn, which included unforgettable characters played by Dee and Davis.
A lifetime of activism
The various acting roles played by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis reflected their radical political views against racism, war and anti-communist hysteria, which they never compromised. They were close friends of the legendary singer Paul Robeson, who was targeted by the McCarthyite witch hunt in the 1950s, especially after he performed in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries and also spoke out against imperialism and racism. Dee and Davis also publicly opposed the 1953 executions of Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg, accused of spying for the Soviet Union.
During the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements, Dee and Davis formed close relationships with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In fact, Davis gave the eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral. Both Dee and Davis helped co-facilitate the rally at the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought out 250,000 people.
Dee signed the call for International Peace for Cuba rallies in the early 1990s in opposition to the U.S. blockade.
Both Dee and Davis were active in the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal movement. They both spoke at the 1,000-strong Dec. 9, 2000, “International Day of Solidarity with Mumia” rally at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem. In 2009, Dee was one of many prominent individuals who demanded a federal civil rights investigation to expose the constitutional violations against Mumia that led to his 1982 first-degree murder conviction. Mumia had interviewed Dee and Davis in 1980.
Mumia stated in his Feb. 7, 2005, prisonradio.org audio column following Davis’s death that “for most young people, perhaps the grizzled old guy in Spike Lee’s movie, “Do the Right Thing,” sparks memories. In the flick, Davis plays Da Mayor, a street figure who pines for the attention of his love interest, played by Ruby Dee. This very role reflects the essence of what Davis and Dee have done for generations now: taken rather ordinary roles and imbued them with grace and dignity, a reflection of how they touched the lives of millions of ordinary people by reflecting the best that is within them.”
Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were one of a kind, brilliant actors who consistently stood in solidarity with the workers and oppressed of the world. They will always remain outstanding examples for artists and non-artists alike.