Harry Belafonte Eulogizes Ossie Davis


60 years is a long time to know somebody. 60 years is a long time to be hugging somebody and there comes a time when the end begins to evidence itself, that you realize that 60 years is really nothing more than a blink of an eye. Ossie Davis and I have shared a friendship for 60 years. And in our time together, we have seen many peaks and valleys. And in recent time, we observed each other carefully in how we did things. And when we were on a platform to service some community or human need, we would notice in one another that we were not walking today with the same energy and exuberance as we were able to do when we first met. And when would you sit down, we noticed that one another that -- we did so a little more slowly to make sure we didn't invite the nagging ache in the lower back before we were ready to experience it again. And on one such occasion just very short few days ago, Ossie and I, as we have done quite often in this time, began to reflect on not only what we have done but how much time is left to do what we felt we had to do. And he said to me, Harry, if it comes to be that I leave here before you, which is not my intention, nor my expectation, but if that happens, be sure that when you stand before those who are gathered that you don't, for God's sake, put any words in my mouth. I told him that that was not possible. In the 87 years he has lived, he has said just about everything that could be said and did so eloquently. Some things are not possible.


Words cannot be shaped to sufficiently soften the grief that many of us are feeling of the loss of our beloved Raiford Chatman Davis. His passing is no simple loss. The vastness of his being that he so humbly contained, can only now be revealed. Only with passing do we begin to truly sense how profound a force he was, and remains. All people embraced him, as he embraced all people. But he held a special place in the heart and soul of black folk and the poor. He was of them. He came from them. And from birth until death, he was always in the midst of their everything. Among many gifts mastered, he was foremost a master of language. He understood the power of words and used them to articulate our deepest hope for the fulfillment of our oneness, with all humanity. Ossie Davis was born into a time of great promise. And guided by his fervent dedication to justice. He wasted no opportunity in defending the causes of the poor, the humiliated, the oppressed. He embraced the greatest forces of our time -- Paul Robeson, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Eleanor Roosevelt, A. Philip Randolph, Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and so many, many more. At a time of one of our most anxious and conflicted moments when our America was torn apart by seething issues of race, Ossie paused at the tomb of one of our noblest warriors, and in the eulogy he delivered insured that history would clearly understand the voice of black people, and what Malcolm X meant to us and the cause of the African and the African-American struggle for freedom. When many of our greatest warriors were most reviled, he championed to them and our cause. With history as witness, and his uncompromising allegiance to truth, Ossie Davis stands validated and revered.


There is no union more blessed than the bond that exists between Ossie and his compassionate and courageous mate, Ruby Dee. They are inseparable, and though one could easily believe that only in death would they be parted, even that stands to be proven. For their union was more than physical, their thoughts were one. Their utterances rapped in mutual approval, and their love made of a spirit that embraced the universe and all of its living creatures. The harmony of their song was filled with trust and respect. Together they imparted to a world caught in bitter struggle against injustice, the belief that solidarity welded to the deep commitment and belief in non-violence was and still remains the most powerful weapon in human kind's arsenal of choice. Their children and grandchildren are the embodiment of what love can nurture, are their gift to our world, and our future. How fortunate for us all that Ruby remains in our family of fellow beings.


In 1917, if a black man had choice, Cogdell, Georgia, would not be his ideal place of birth. But it was in many ways this birthplace that shaped Ossie Davis's values and courage. He came from a family of achievers, and their dignity and unwillingness to live and be defined as subhuman constantly enraged the already spiteful and cruel white community that surrounded them. The Ku Klux Klan's declaration that they would shoot down his father like a dog caused Ossie in later life to claim that incident as a most compelling reason for exploring writing as a life profession. That exploration led him to Shakespeare, and the theater, and indeed, in the Thespian world, he found purpose. The performing arts became his rebellion to tyranny. And as an actor, he interpreted our existence with the dignity rarely allowed to the generations of black artists who struggled before him. The small few who did achieve his ability and dignity, like Paul Robeson, became Ossie Davis's guide to a life of social activism that would forever fuel his passion to employee art as an instrument for battling injustice.


Black America has always lived in a state of siege, and in our 400 years of history and of living with this imposition, African-Americans have consistently fought for relief, and have placed faith and the belief that the articles of governance framed by the nation's white founding fathers would one day fully embrace its citizens of color just as it has so generously embraced its white population. But that has not been our lot. By creating a zone of special privilege for but a small number of black citizens, there's some who would give the impression that this privilege was the dominant condition of the whole of the black population, and nothing could be further from the truth. Ossie Davis, though touched by this seduction of the privileges of the elite as a movie star and a revered presence in our national culture, refused to distance himself from the vast majority of his people, and diligently championed our struggle for our rightful place at the table of America's experiment with democracy. He despaired at the present state of our nation. He detested the lies and deceit that found favor in the minds and hearts of a vast number of our citizenry. Our nation's arrogant and mindless imperial march toward global domination deeply concerned him. But he reminded those who lost heart in the face of this turn in human events, let us not linger on what is lost, but let us dwell on what it is we must do. Let us do what we know how to do. Let us forge an unbreakable solidarity and blow the dust off the blueprints of our past victories. Let us reclaim our undistorted moral truth, and turn all of this into a world of peace. Let us reclaim our earth and nurture with the love all of her living offsprings. Let us be worthy of why we are here, and reassert our national humanity. To do anything less for our America would have history charge us with being guilty of patriotic treason.


The richness of Ossie Davis's wit and humor complimented his commanding intellect and compelling art. Once in my home at a not too uncommon ritual of planning for our emerging desegregation battle in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King, Stan Levinson, Bernard Lee, Ossie and a few others were listening to Bayard Ruston, our most knowledgeable on the application in Ghandian non-violent methodology. And Bayard guided us through steps of what to do if our marches were stopped by state troopers, what to do if we were tear-gassed or beaten, what not to do in retaliation, what to do in the paddy wagon, what to do what booked at the police station, what to say, when to resort to fasting if incarcerated long enough and so on and so forth. We listened carefully and asked questions, absorbing all we could, and went off over the following weeks to organize our demonstrations. On the March for the Selma, we planned for the tens of thousands of marchers to arrive that night just outside of Montgomery at a holding point given to us by the catholic church, a place called, St. Jude., the grounds were quite spacious. On the morning before the arrivals, to insure that morale and spirit of the marchers would not wane, we built a stage made from 120 coffins donated by two local funeral parlors on which dozens upon dozens of America's most well known artists would perform. In my task to arrange all of this, I greated our chartered flights at Montgomery airport from Los Angeles and New York, crammed with our cultural luminaries. Stepping off the plane, behind Tony Bennet and Leonard Bernstein and others was Ossie, and in the not too distance background stood the governor of Alabama, George Wallace's most feared racist law enforcement chief, Bo Connor and his battle-ready GESTAPO. Ossie paused and gazed at the display of force, and at that moment, all of the horrors that Bayard Ruston had prepared us before danced before us. And just as he was envisioning that we would either be shot or beaten or have mad dogs nipping at our genitalia, or sensing more humanely just perhaps being sent to prison forever, Ossie expressing his deepest concern, turned to me and said, tell me, Harry, you don't snore, do you? just as a reminder, this was the march in which Viola Liuzzo was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.


It is hard to fathom that we will no longer be able to call upon his wisdom, his humor, his passion, his loyalty, his moral strength to guide us in the choices we have yet to make in the battles that are yet to be fought. But how fortunate we are, how fortunate we were, to have had him as long as we did. How fortunate we are that he has left us as did Paul, and W.E.B. and Malcolm, and Fanny Lou, and Medgar, and Bobby, and Eleanor, for the blueprint of courage that defined them, and is now left for us, and future generations to absorb and implement by speaking truth to power. We can never say, we do not know how, for there are none to guide us, or to inspire us, and tell us how, or help us understand in unshakeable terms that our struggle will succeed, and that justice will prevail, and that our humanity will endure. Thank you, Ossie. Those whose lives you have touched are forever inspired, and we are deeply, deeply grateful.

Harry Belafonte