Since the passing of actress and activist Ruby Dee last week, much has been made of her and husband Ossie Davis’ activism. For decades, the two held up the standard set by such African American performers as Paul Robeson, both entertaining crowds and remaining staunch supporters of agitation and activism. Today I think it’s important to pause and reflect upon the importance of people such as Davis, Dee, and others who both entertained and, in many ways, tried to educate others about social topics. In the process, it’s important that we think about such individuals and their role in the creation and maintenance of a “Black Public Sphere”, something I’ve written about before.
Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were members of the Black Public Sphere in a variety of ways. Their very presence as an acting pair, together for decades and starring in various films, served as an inspiration for many African Americans. That, at the very least, was an element in their appeal you drew from reading numerous obituaries of Dee. The symbolism of the pair—and, indeed, of other prominent African Americans—is something that can’t be forgotten when thinking about a Black Public Sphere in the late 20th century. Of course, for African American entertainers coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, it was almost impossible not to be part of the Black Public Sphere.
The late Richard Iton’s In Search of the Black Fantastic offers an excellent section on the intersection of the political, social, and cultural for the husband and wife couple in the 1950s. He pointed out that during the Red Scare of the 1950s, Davis, Dee, and actor Sidney Poitier and performer Harry Belafonte were all at some point under suspicion for either being Communists or, at the very least, being fellow travelers. Iton wrote that they operated in an age that forced them to adopt different tactics from those of Robeson: “Absent, though, would be the explicit leftist/Popular Front political aesthetic and the diasporic consciousness that had defined the older activist’s work…like a number of individuals who sought to establish and maintain careers in the McCarthy era and afterward, Belafonte and Poitier made conscious efforts to distance themselves from any possible red taint or radical association.”
The links from Robeson to Dee, Davis, and other performers who were activists during the Civil Rights era and beyond can’t be forgotten. As Iton himself noted, “Those young actors who were closest to Robeson—such as Belafonte, Poitier, Dee, and Davis—would also become relatively close to King.” In considering questions of the “Long Civil Rights Movement,” along with cultural and political trends in the 50s and 60s, people such as Dee and Davis are important for any study. To go a step further, consider that Dee and Davis were close to both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They co-emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August, 1963. Ossie Davis would give a memorable eulogy for Malcolm—which he co-wrote with Ruby Dee. And, of course, consider how Dee was an important actress in early version of fellow activist/artist Lorraine Hansberry’s play Raisin in the Sun, starring alongside Poitier in the 1961 film version.
In the 1970s, both Davis and Dee would take a further step into the Black Public Sphere, writing for various publications such as Negro Digest/Black World and serving on the editorial board of Black Scholar, just to provide two examples. Dee also served as a contributing editor to Freedomways, further cementing the links between herself and Davis to the legacy of Paul Robeson’s radical activism. What we as intellectual historians can take away from this is to consider how popular performers like Davis and Dee played an intellectual role in the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. They didn’t simply provide their name to causes, although that was important; they also tried to develop ideas in various radical publications that were read by activists, intellectuals, and (in the case of Negro Digest/Black World) individuals curious about new and big ideas being developed by African American intellectuals.
As I’ve mentioned in recent weeks, the passing of an intellectual and cultural generation for African Americans, one that witnessed the tumult of the Civil Rights era and the radical promises of it and Black Power, is taking place. And when considering the lives and legacies of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee—not to mention Poitier, Belafonte, or athletes such as Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali—their activities should be conceptualized as part of a larger Black Public Sphere, an intellectual tradition firmly ensconced within a larger American intellectual and cultural tradition.
 Richard Iton. In Search of the Black Fantastic. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 59.
 Iton, p. 60.