Malcolm X and Ossie Davis
More than a eulogy
By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan CitizenPart I of II
The following article — the first of two parts — was written, but not published, seven years ago by Highland Park scholar and Michigan Citizen features writer Paul Lee as a memorial to Ossie Davis, who died in 2005.
Davis, as he recalled in his memoir, was well known as “the man who had eulogized Malcolm X” in 1965, but his relationship with the martyred African American Muslim and nationalist leader went much deeper.
During Malcolm X’s final, independent year, he, Davis and Ruby Dee, Davis’ wife, collaborated on a secret effort to form a “united Black front” of civil rights organizations. This article explores their relationship and that effort, using Davis’ and Dee’s recollections and previously classified FBI documents.
Just as Davis’ relationship with Malcolm X was much more than his brilliant eulogy, this article is much more than a memorial to Davis. The Michigan Citizen is proud to present it, updated and with new material, in commemoration of Malcolm X’s 87th birthday, which was on May 19.
Ossie Davis, the legendary African American actor, playwright, producer and social activist, who passed away on Feb. 4, 2005, will be remembered by many people for eulogizing Malcolm X as “our own Black shining price” 47 years ago.
Although Davis made many contributions to the arts and “the Struggle,” as he liked to call the Black freedom movement before and after that sad day, if he had done nothing else, this would be a fitting tribute to his integrity, eloquence and dedication.
However, Davis and Ruby Dee, his equally gifted and committed wife, who assisted him in conducting Malcolm X’s funeral service, were at least as important to Malcolm X in life as they were after his death.
But readers of Davis’ and Dee’s 1989 joint memoir, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together,” would only get a suggestion of the true depth of their relationship with Malcolm X, some aspects of which have been understandably blurred by the mists of time. This article is partly intended to provide a historical corrective.
A memorable introduction
Like many television viewers during New York City’s sweltering summer of 1959, Davis became aware of Malcolm X through Mike Wallace’s controversial five-part documentary on Black nationalism in Harlem, which was broadcast on WNTA’s hard-hitting “News Beat” program, July 13-17.
Ominously titled “The Hate That Hate Produced,” it was researched by African American journalist Louis E. Lomax.
Lomax interviewed the fiery young minister of Muhammad’s Temple of Islam No. 7, the Harlem branch of Elijah Muhammad’s separatist, race-centered Nation of Islam (NOI), which would be dubbed the “Black Muslim movement” the following year in a study by Dr. C. Eric Lincoln.
“I don’t remember very much about the documentary except that young man … lean and gaunt and quite capable of using language to open wounds,” Davis recalled in a July 6, 1989, interview for Blackside, Inc.’s “Eyes on the Prize II,” the second installment of PBS’s history of the civil rights movement.
“I knew I would never forget this man,” Davis recalled.
Visit to Temple No. 7
Davis’ personal introduction to Malcolm X came through Dee’s brother, Edward Thomas, known as Tommy, who had joined Temple (later Mosque) No. 7. “It was easy to see the positive effect Malcolm was having on him,” Davis recalled in his memoir.
“Ruby and I decided, as had always been our policy with other black leaders, to check him out,” Davis recalled, by going to hear him speak.
“Like Martin, he was a master of oral communications. He knew the music of Black speech and how to play an audience like an instrument. … He combined profound scholarship and understanding of national and international issues with a refreshing wit.”
Later, Davis and Dee had lunch with Malcolm X at the Spartan-clean Temple No. 7 Restaurant. They “discussed various things,” Davis recalled in his Blackside interview, “and (we) were impressed with him.”
The feeling was mutual. “Do you know Ossie Davis?” Malcolm X suddenly asked Black writer Alex Haley, who began ghostwriting “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in the spring of 1963.
When Haley, who would later gain international fame as the author of the 1976 historical novel “Roots,” replied that he didn’t, Malcolm X said, “I ought to introduce you sometime; that’s one of the finest Black men,” Haley reported in his epilogue to Malcolm X’s memoir, published after the Muslim leader’s death.
Davis himself was a commanding presence. As tall as the six-foot-three Malcolm X, Davis’ broad, expressive features and rumbling baritone, which sounded as if it were purpose-built for storytelling, saw to this.
His graying temples added an air of distinction and his hair, which he wore naturally at a time when many Black men straightened theirs, suggested a healthy pride in his God-given Blackness.
Malcolm X demonstrated his respect for Davis in a surprising way: He skirted the NOI’s rules by attending — alone — a matinee of Davis’ play “Purlie Victorious,” which ran for nine months in 1961 at Broadway’s Cort Theatre.
“It was most unusual for him to come to a performance because Elijah Muhammad (forbade) the Muslims to attend theater,” Davis observed in his memoir. “Malcolm came backstage, and talked to Ruby and me.”
In his Blackside interview, Davis recalled that Malcolm X said, “I think you’re trying to do with laughter what I’m trying to do by other — any other means necessary. You are really zinging the (white) man and I appreciate that.”
Muhammad Speaks — for Davis
It was almost certainly Malcolm X who arranged for “Purlie Victorious” to be promoted in Muhammad Speaks, the Chicago-based NOI newspaper that Malcolm X founded in New York in 1960 as Mr. Muhammad Speaks.
The January 1962 issue ran a photo by Robert L. Haggins, Jr., one of Malcolm X’s personal photographers, of Davis addressing a Harlem NAACP rally. The cutline noted that Davis and Dee “are co-starring in his own hit satirical drama on Broadway.”
In March, the paper reported their appearance at Temple’s No. 7’s annual “African-Asian Bazaar” on Jan. 27. The article described them as “stars of Broadway’s comedy hit, ‘Purlie Victorious,’ written by Mr. Davis.”
In June, it published two photos by Earl 5X Grant, another one of Malcolm X’s personal photographers and one of his few intimates, of Malcolm X on a “Barry Gray Show” panel on New York radio station WMCA on March 30-31, 1962.
The first photo shows Davis, another panelist, raptly listening to Malcolm X. Again, he was described as the “star of (the) Broadway hit ‘Purlie Victorious.’”
In the second photo, Dee is shown “congratulating the debate winner (Malcolm X) with a warm smile.” She “sat through the session along with dozens of other white and Afro-American celebrities,” the cutline stated.
According to Earl Grant, Davis and Dee were among the handful of people who Malcolm X could truly relax around and confide in.
He needed to do both after he was suspended from the NOI in December 1963, the result of the “envy and jealousy,” as he later described it, of the group’s national officials (mostly Mr. Muhammad’s children), who finally succeeded in alienating Mr. Muhammad from his most gifted and loyal minister.
After 16 years as a member of the NOI, during which he came to feel like one of Mr. Muhammad’s sons, this separation was devastating for Malcolm X, and opened a breach that would eventually lead to his death.
In their memoir, Davis and Dee recalled “our last visit with Malcolm,” which they remembered as occurring at their New Rochelle, N.Y., home shortly before his assassination on Feb. 21, 1965.
However, what they recalled about its details more likely dates it as January 1964, several weeks after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, and Muhammad’s silencing of Malcolm X on Dec. 2 for publicly describing it — against instructions — as a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.”
Unusually, Davis reported in his memoir, Malcolm X arrived alone. “He didn’t come for advice, he didn’t come for sympathy or consolation, he didn’t come to listen, he came to talk. Quietly, reflectively, in his heart’s own way, this talk bonded him to us forever.”
It is perhaps an index of the salutary environment created by the couple that, according to Davis, “He spoke of Elijah Muhammad but without rancor.”
However, Dee’s recollection is more foreboding than her husband’s, and demonstrated how security-conscious Malcolm X was:
“He didn’t come in the front door; he came in the side entrance near the kitchen. He spent the time in the dining room, sitting in a chair that he placed against a wall that faced the door on one side and a window on an adjacent wall. … I’d been thinking much about recent events following President Kennedy’s assassination, Malcolm’s remarks about the death and threats against Malcolm’s life.”
Malcolm X’s mention of death threats tends to confirm that his visit took place sometime after early January 1964, following his discovery of an NOI plot to wire his car with an explosive — something he confided to only a few intimates.
“This first direct death-order,” Malcolm X later recalled in his ghostwritten autobiography, “was how, finally, I began to arrive at my psychological divorce from the Nation of Islam.
“I began to see, wherever I went … the faces of Muslims whom I knew, and I knew that any of them might be waiting (for) the opportunity to try and put a bullet in me.”
“As any official in the Nation of Islam would instantly have known, any death-talk for me could have been approved of — if not actually initiated — by only one man.” That man, it’s clear, was Elijah Muhammad.
“I felt the very real danger surrounding him,” Dee recalled in her memoir. “During the visit, I suggested places where he could go into hiding.” She privately asked Ossie if she should offer Malcolm X a room behind a secret wall in their home as one such place. “Please, don’t mention such a thing,” Davis replied.
Dee then began searching for “$5,000 I had squirreled away,” which she wanted to give to the beleaguered leader. Failing at that, she went to bid him farewell. “Malcolm is at the side door, about to leave. He and Ossie embrace. He pecks my cheek. … Take care, Malcolm. … He’s across the yard and gone. … Out into the danger. Into the enemy camp without the funds.”
Copyright © 2005, 2012 by Paul Lee