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Ossie Davis: Success on His Own Terms

Everett Collection

Ossie Davis: Success on His Own Terms

On Feb. 4, 2005, the world lost a great champion of civil rights, who overcame racism and prejudice to become one of the most-honored actors of his generation. Today we look back at accomplished and outspoken Ossie Davis.

When Ossie Davis began his acting career in 1939, the available roles for black men were few and far between – and they were none too appealing. Stereotypical servant characters were often all that were offered the young actor. Davis disliked these roles, but he wanted to be an actor and he worked to give his characters dignity. Slowly, he found success on his own terms, playing roles he could be proud of.

Over the years, Davis built a multi-faceted career in the performing arts. Davis continued his movie career, with notable and memorable roles in several Spike Lee films:

He charmed the younger generation with his voice work as Anansi the Spider on Sesame Street:

He became a playwright (Paul Robeson, All American), a director (Cotton Comes to Harlem and others), a TV star (Evening Shade, The L Word and many more)… and throughout his life and career, he was a powerful voice for civil rights.

Davis emceed and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and, as a friend to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he delivered memorials to both men after their assassinations.

In later years, Davis and his wife, fellow actor and activist Ruby Dee, were recognized for their talents and contributions over the decades. They were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame in 1989, and in 1995 received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton. In 2004, the couple was presented with one of the most prestigious awards in entertainment, a Kennedy Center Honor.

Just a few months after being honored, Davis died at 87. But the reach of his career and his advocacy will extend long beyond his life.