Regarded by Martin Luther King as “close personal friends,” Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were among the celebrities involved in efforts to publicize and fund the work of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King, 11 April 1961).
Born 18 December 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia, Davis left the South in 1935 and hitchhiked to Washington, D.C. At Howard University Davis majored in English and studied drama with the intent of becoming a playwright. After he dropped out of college in 1939, he moved to Harlem to begin his career on the stage.
Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, Dee was raised in Harlem. She joined the American Negro Theater while attending Hunter College (BA, 1945). Dee made her Broadway debut in a 1943 play named “South Pacific” (different from the better-known musical of the same name). In 1946, she met up-and-coming actor Ossie Davis when he starred in the play, “Jeb,” a show about a returning World War II veteran who faced down the Ku Klux Klan; Dee was an understudy in the play.
Dee and Davis married in 1948, and as a couple they often staged benefits for civil rights groups and labor unions. In 1957, Davis authored a dramatic rendering of the Montgomery bus boycott, called “Montgomery Footprints.” His 1961 Broadway hit “Purlie Victorious” in which he starred with Dee dealt with racial issues. Dee starred in the Broadway hit, “A Raisin in the Sun,” which won the 1959 Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play.
The couple first encountered King in 1956 at Adam Clayton Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Davis noted King’s “mellifluous, rolling baritone” and his commanding speaking style, “building one tower of rhetoric after another” (Davis and Dee, 250; 251). Although they did not share King’s commitment to nonviolence, Davis and Dee enthusiastically embraced King as “a new leader of the black church and community” (Davis and Dee, 251). The following year, Dee, along with fellow entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., attended the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, organized by Harry Belafonte and others, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Years later at the same site, she and Davis participated in the 1963 March on Washington.
Although Dee and Davis supported King, they questioned his call for nonviolence. In 1964 they privately reprimanded him for meeting with New York’s Mayor Robert Wagner in the aftermath of police brutality following riots in Harlem, and for calling for restraint from the African American community. “The mayor needs you, Dr. King. But not nearly so much as we, your own people, do,” they chided. “We implore that you will move at once to reassure that people and the leadership of the Harlem Community that their dilemma at this painful hour is much more important to you than the mayor’s” (Davis and Dee, 28 July 1964). When King was assassinated in 1968, they traveled to Atlanta to attend his funeral.