Interview with Ossie Davis

Now way, how did you learn of his death and what was your reaction? How did it get to you?


Ruby and I were with Lerone Bennett at a meeting to study for the associate for the study of Negro life and history and we came from there to Ruby's mother and we were sitting watching the television. I think some Russian Ballet was on or something like that on that Sunday. And then the program was interrupted and the announcement was made that Malcolm X had been shot. It was--we were less than ten blocks away and, ah, as a matter of fact, had we had not had this previous engagement we would have been at the that, that--I forget the place now, the Audubon. Was it the Audubon? Because we knew that Malcolm was supposed on that day to reveal his new program, the one that we had tried to get him to spell out way back at Five Cooley Place. But we couldn't make it, but Malcolm at that time was living at Ruby's brother's house because his house had been fire bombed. So we knew that, ah, Tommy Wallace was going to drive the family to that meeting because Malcolm, of course, was not living at home. We heard the news and we sat stunned as everybody was stunned And that night we went into the Harlem community to walk and mingle with the people. There was a kind of sense of loss and as we passed people, some who were even strangers we would stop and greet each other and, and, and say what this man had meant to us**. And I felt, in Harlem, a determination to say something about who the man was because at that time the headlines were full of so many awful things. He was being described as a mad dog whose violence had killed him, and that sort of thing. There was a feeling in the community that this was not so, that we had to do something to let the world know what we, in Harlem, thought of this man. That we loved him, respected, and admired him. And the week after his death we in the community went around trying to come up with something by way of the funeral that would refute all of this negativity and say once and for all who this man was. I was approached ultimately by Sylvester Leeks and, ah, Percy Sutton, ah, who said that they wanted me to give the eulogy at Malcolm's funeral. I said, "Why me? I'm not a member I'm, I'm a friend but why me?" "Well, you're the least controversial person we can think of. The Muslims would accept you. The left wing will accept you. The right wing will accept you. The Black folks will accept you. The White folks will accept you. So you're it." I said, "Al right," and I accepted that. Meanwhile we went around with sister Betty Shabazz's blessings trying to find the house where we could hold the funeral. And a lot of the churches in Harlem, though the ministers knew and admired Malcolm, would not open their doors. And we could understand why. Because Malcolm was killed on Sunday, on Tuesday night the mosque was fire bombed and everybody feared that at the funeral some big explosion was going to take place and nobody wanted his church to be the place. Finally, there was a place on Amsterdam Avenue that opened up but their expectations that violence was going to take place pervaded the whole atmosphere. You know, it was like an armed camp. Ruby and I arrived early that Saturday morning for the funeral, walked through the community which was quiet and still, you know. And the police were everywhere and we went in, ah, to the, ah, to the church and the body was there. But there were police there you know and, ah, we didn't know what was going to happen. People were being searched and, you know, all kinds of things were taking place. As a matter of fact, the night before the funeral, Ruby's brother had called and said, "From what I hear on the streets, I don't know what's going to happen. I suggest that you guys, maybe you shouldn't go." And we sat up, you know, in that kitchen until three or four o'clock in the morning deciding whether we would go. We decided to go and I sat down and wrote a few words that I would say. And we went in and, ah, our job was to sort of announce who was speaking next and, ah, where this telegram came from and various other things. And then it was my moment to deliver the eulogy, ah, to Malcolm and there he was, you know, lying before me and all of us this beautiful magnificent spirit, you know, and it was, ah, all I could do to keep my own personal emotions out of what I was saying because, of all the leaders that I knew and loved and admired and have walked with and walked behind, this one, as I said before, had been closest to me. I felt I was losing a son. But I had an assignment. And that assignment was to say something that would let the world know what Harlem felt about this moment and about this brother. To dignify the occasion in a way that was worthy of a man who stood with the greatest leaders we ever produced. And, ah, so it was that I said what I had to say at that time and I suppose, ah, ah, in terms of the total effect it, it, it, it did the job. When the funeral was over and Malcolm was taken--he was stripped of his western clothes and then the Muslims came and dressed him for proper Muslim burial--they had a service and after that the coffin was closed. We all got in. We went out to Ardsley, the cemetery, and when we got there you know the professional grave diggers were standing there with their shovels but some of the Black brothers said, "No, ah, ah, we can't let you do that. We dig this grave, you know, we cover this brother with dirt." And it was a moving moment and I was proud at that moment to be Black. And proud that my community and people, no matter what had been said by the outside world, said to the brother we loved and respected and admired you. And so we buried him and there it is**.


OK that's not bad.