Interview with Ossie Davis

Can you recall your first encounter with this lean gaunt man?


Yeah, I do, I do indeed. Ruby and I had been invited in 1968 to come to a platform in front of the Theresa Hotel in Harlem where we were going to celebrate with the NAACP the eighth anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court decision. And, ah, no, that was '64 I think it was, yes it was '64. And we, ah, we sat on the platform, but for some reason, ah, nobody was permitted to speak. There was a tremendous furor in the people who gathered and when the regular speakers got up, ah, ah, Roy Wilkins, everybody booed and made us all sit down. I think I even got up and tried to say a word, but I was booed roundly. In other words, that, that rally came to naught. As we were leaving the platform I was aware of several young men standing and they were neat and they were clean and they had their hair cut and all that. I knew that these were, ah, Black Muslims. And I thought that it was the Black Muslims who had organized the disruptions so I spoke to one of the brothers. "Well, ah, ha, you and me, you and Malcolm, you've done it, you've, ah, you know, disrupted the rally." He said, "Oh, no, brother, no, that wasn't us, that wasn't Malcolm, that was some someone else, we don't disrupt rallies." You know, and I was rather impressed by that--hmm hmm--better check this out. Meanwhile Ruby's brother, ah, got to know the Muslims very well and became interested in them and talked to us about Malcolm, about Elijah Muhammad and what they were they were trying to do and, ah, persuaded us on one Sunday afternoon--well, he'd been talking to us, but after the Harlem thing his invitation to go to the mosque in the afternoon and listen to Malcolm X. We decided to accept it. So the first time I actually saw him was in the mosque in Harlem one Sunday afternoon as he preached one of his sermons. It was of course a long-winded sermon, but every minute of it was interesting, bubbling, full of excitement and stings, and his capacity to rip the hide off everybody within sight, you know, was, it was beautiful. And, and he said, "I can smell the hog on ya." You know, he, he was the master at putting you at a total disadvantage, you know. And he described how we as Black folks smelled, he described how we looked, he described how we felt. Then he described what caused us to feel that way. You know, "The chains of slavery are still in your mind and in your heads and you, you look at the White man and, and you love 'em. That's what you, you hate the fact that he let you go from slavery, you want to go back there." You know, "But, but no, the honorable Elijah Muhammad is here now and we going to change all that, you know, the righteous Black man is on the scene and we're not going to be satisfied with you and, and your shucking and jiving, the time has come."** I was impressed by the man. You know, I wasn't converted, you know. I, I knew a, a trick or two myself, but I was impressed with him.