Ossie Davis’ children are inspiring a new wave of activists through their father’s legacy.
The film, television and Broadway actor, director, poet, playwright and civil rights activist who died in 2005 at the age of 87, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Monday (Dec. 18). In honor of the centennial milestone, Nora Davis Day, Guy Davis and Dr. Hasna Muhammad Davis (the three children of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) are highlighting their father’s “contributions to the struggle.”
“We know that if Dad and Mom were around now, they would want to be a part of this discourse around civil rights. This renewed activism, the challenging of the status quo, and augmenting the voices that are truly marginalized,” Hasna told ET during a phone interview on Friday. “Since he’s not here, we do have this opportunity to include his and Mom's voices, so that we can help attribute and provide historical context, and encourage the vehicle on his birthday.”
Born Raiford Chatman Davis in 1917, the Georgia native got an early introduction to racism when KKK members threatened to kill his father for being a railway engineer, a job that they didn’t think was suited for a black man. The experience could have very well fueled what would become Davis' lifelong dedication to activism.
Before becoming an actor, Davis served in the U.S. Army during World War II and attended Howard University for three years before dropping out to pursue a career in acting and writing. Decades later, in 1973, Howard University presented him with an honorary Doctorate of Humanities.
In 1948, Davis married Oscar-nominated actress Dee, whom he frequently collaborated with throughout his more than 50-year career, and remained married to until his death. (Dee died in 2014.) The couple met when they starred together in the 1946 Broadway play Jeb, which tackled race relations in post-World War II America, as told through the perspective of a black soldier (played by Davis) who lost his leg in the war and returns home to a small town in the South.
From Broadway to TV and film, Davis appeared in dozens of productions, including The Cardinal, Grumpy Old Men, Get on the Bus, Dr. Doolittle and voicing Anansi the Spider on Sesame Street.
He made his silver screen debut in the 1950 film No Way Out, starring Sidney Portier, and by the 1980s, Davis (often along with Dee) became a fixture in Spike Lee films like School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X and 2004’s She Hate Me.
Despite his many accolades, the Emmy-nominated actor had a seemingly normal family life and never wanted to make a big fuss about his birthday. “He used to tell us, ‘Listen, I was born, I couldn’t help it. Let’s not make a big deal out of it every year,'” Nora recalled. “But he let us celebrate his 90th and we feel sure that he would’ve let us celebrate his 100th, but only if it was going to benefit someone. If he were here, we’d be putting on a benefit for the labor unions or the theaters, or a civil rights organizations, something having to do with the struggle for human rights and civil rights.”
And if Davis was alive, the family would be celebrating his birthday with cake, ice cream and champagne. “He would be having cake and ice cream and his chardonnay. Mommy would be having her cabernet sauvignon and [we would have] our champagne. We would be toasting and telling our stories and laughing and enjoying each other. But since he’s not [alive], I think he’d appreciate the fact that we’re going to use [his birthday] as a work day,” Nora said with a laugh. “He never liked for us to break away from our jobs and our work. He felt that was very important.”
The siblings have personal rituals to commemorate their parents’ birth and death days, which involve lighting candles in their honor and taking time for reflection. Hasna also likes to begin her father’s birthday morning by writing. “That was one of the ways he and I connected,” she explained.
As of now, the family has no "formal" centennial birthday celebration in the works, although they are planning to reunite.
“Every time we got together it was Thanksgiving Day,” Guy fondly recalled of their gatherings over the years. “So I imagine if there’s to be any formal celebration among the family, it’ll be the next time that we can reunite. We don’t know necessarily when that is because we are scattered in various places.”
On a larger scale, the family will be honoring Davis' birthday with updates to OssieandRuby.com, and are encouraging fans to take to social media to use the hashtag #OssieAndRuby to share photographs, stories or their favorite quotes from the late actor.
The celebration kicks off a yearlong push to continue their parents’ philanthropic efforts by teaming with the United Negro College Fund for a centennial scholarship in their father’s name, as well as donating to the National Museum of African America History and Culture and The Black Academy of Art and Letters.
“There will be different things that we chose to do that will add their voices and contribute to the greater good of the people,” Hasana said.
“Most importantly is to really just have a conversation about love, art and activism," she added. "And to remind folks that the struggle continues. There is no post-racism, or anything like that, so the long-term [plan] is to raise consciousness.”
While celebrity activism is commonplace these days, Davis and Dee helped pioneer the movement. The two were the masters of ceremony at the 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, they collaborated with and befriended the likes of activist and author W.E.B. DuBois, social activist A. Philip Randolph and poet Langston Hughes. In 1965, Davis famously delivered the eulogy at the funeral of former Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X.
“Whenever somebody needed Mom and Dad, whenever there was a need from the people, whenever there was a wrong that needed to be voiced, Mom and Dad never shied away from showing up,” Hasna said. “After Malcolm [X] was killed, [Mom and Dad] went out into the streets and talked to the people. No matter what the issue was, if there was injustice, Mom and Dad felt compelled to participate or to support in some way. And that’s an example for me that when we’re needed, we need to show up and get in that line and march.”
Hasna feels that Davis would’ve been especially proud of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for using his platform to fight for issues of social and racial injustice, including mass incarceration and police brutality. He would also likely be working alongside his friend and fellow actor, Harry Belafonte, and “other elders to help train and bring up the pipeline of other activists.”
And Nora believes her parents would not be surprised by “the current climate or the current president."
“I know that they would probably cry when they heard some of the issues that we still have to deal with. That brown and black folks are still being shot and killed by the police. That children are still undereducated, that women are still subjected to violence. That folks still are discriminated against,” she said. “They would cry, and then they would put on their marching boots and then they would call us out in the streets and say, ‘Let’s do something about it.’ They would help bring a voice to the issues and they would expect us and their grandchildren to do the same.”
On a non-political note, the siblings shared some of the important lessons that they learned from their parents, such as “showing up and speaking out,” perfecting your craft "whether you feel like it or not," and most importantly, putting family first.
“The things that we promised our mother on her death bed, literally, was that we would get along and be a family,” Hasna said. “We have done that without difficulty because that’s how we were raised. We have a strategy, we have a process, and we know, inherently, as part of our personality, how to be family. We hope that we teach that lesson to our children. That’s the most important thing."
“The greatest gift that our parents gave us was each other,” Nora chimed in. “And we plan to make the most of it and share what we have and what we know for as long as we can, in their name.”