Ruby Dee Tribute

Tavis reflects on the legacy of the stage and screen legend and passionate activist and revisits past conversations.

In a career that spanned more than 70 years, Ruby Dee continuously made her mark. She was the first Black woman to play lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival and won numerous awards and honors for her work, including a best supporting actress Oscar nod and a SAG Award (at age 83, for her performance in the hit film, American Gangster) an Emmy and a Grammy. She's perhaps best known for her performance in the 1961 film, A Raisin in the Sun—a role she reprised from her Broadway turn in 1959—and frequently performed with her late husband, fellow actor-activist Ossie Davis. Not one to be slowed down by age, she narrated the 2013 Lifetime original movie, Betty and Coretta, and, at age 91, was working on the still-in-production crime drama, King Dog, with Ice-T.

She was also known for her longtime work in the civil rights movement and was friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

A breast cancer survivor of more than 30 years, the legendary actress, playwright, screenwriter and poet leaves behind an enduring legacy.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a tribute to Ruby Dee, one of this country’s most accomplished performers and a tireless advocate for civil rights. She passed away last night at her home in New York surrounded by friends and family. She was 91.

Ruby Dee was a true trailblazer, one of those heroes who Tony winner, Audra McDonald, singled out just last Sunday night as the reason her career is even possible.

Over the course of seven decades, Ruby Dee gave us outstanding performances in plays like “A Raisin in the Sun” and in movies like her Oscar-nominated role in “American Gangster” and “Do the Right Thing.”

Along with her husband, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee was at the forefront of the civil rights movement marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

She was a friend and an inspiration, and I had the honor of speaking with her twice on this program. A tribute to the legendary Ruby Dee coming up right now.

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[Begin previous conversation]

Tavis: I only have 30 minutes. I can’t do justice to your work in 30 minutes. I wonder if you might indulge me just to throw some things at you and let you tell me about this journey you’ve been on.

Ruby Dee: Okay.

Tavis: In no particular order, what must it have been like with your late great husband, Ossie Davis, to be in the charge of the program at the 1963 march on Washington that, of course, gave us that “I Have a Dream” speech? You guys ran the program that day.

Dee: Oh, yes. But the most remarkable thing about that day was Malcolm coming to our hotel room. He just came in by himself and I don’t know what – we were waiting to go downstairs, I guess, part of the wait. So we were amazed to see him because nobody told us he was coming and so on and so forth.

But he wanted Ossie to let it be known to the proper people that he was there. And should they need his help or anything that he could do, he would be discreet. Discreet is the word he used. But he wanted us to let somebody in that march know that he was there.

That’s one of the things I remember about that more than anything. He said, other than that, he doesn’t want his presence known, he doesn’t want to speak, he doesn’t want any attention. But he didn’t want anything to go down that shouldn’t.

Tavis: See? That’s amazing to me because we, of course – I’d never heard this story ’cause it’s your story in your private hotel room. But we think of that day, as I mentioned a moment ago, as Dr. King’s grandest day, “I Have a Dream.”

And here, Malcolm X was in the city and he came to you all’s hotel room on the day of Dr. King’s event to tell you all he was there. Wow.

Speaking of Malcolm X and Ossie Davis, your husband was the only person to speak at both Malcolm’s funeral and Martin’s funeral. Spoke at both of them.

Dee: Oh, yeah. I can’t get over it. And also we were privy to the fact that the death word was out because my brother who was one of his first disciples – as a matter of fact, my brother Edward introduced us to Malcolm. He introduced us to the whole movement.

We had a party for Malcolm because of my brother. Everybody we knew, Sidney and Harry and John O. Killens and my friend Juanita and Grace Killen. So many people came to our little house in Mount Vernon to meet Malcolm ’cause my brother had introduced – and I was so excited and amused by our first meeting, my first listening to Malcolm speak.

And I didn’t even know it was Malcolm when he was speaking ’cause he was so young in the first place and he talked such a long time [laugh]. When I first met him, I shook hands and I said, “Oh, you’re Malcolm. You know, you kept saying the same thing over and over.” I don’t know why I said that [laugh].

But he has that crooked little grin, you know. The corner of his mouth goes up and down. He said, “Well, you know, you have to say things over and over before people get the message.” [Laugh] I remember that, and how dare I say that?

Tavis: You mentioned earlier in this conversation – and this is the case when you talk to an iconic figure like yourself. You said Sidney, then you said Harry. Of course, we know you’re talking about Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte who were personal friends of yours.

What do you make of the fact that when you say, oh, so many, here is a class with Ruby Dee, this American Negro ensemble, with you and Ossie Davis and Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, what do you make of the fact that all you all were just kids studying together and every one of you, at least those I’ve just listed, end up becoming not just good actors and not even just great actors, but all of you went on to become iconic figures?

Dee: Well, I don’t know about – what I like to think of – what I like to remember about that time was the dream that Fred O’Neal and Abram Hill had. It rubbed off on all of us and we all became carriers of the dream which made me realize when we get awards and so forth and you get honored about this and that, first of all, oh, no, what have I done to win that?

But it’s not really true. There are the dream carriers. There are the people who pass on the dream for you to carry and you can’t back away from it. And you have to accept it and you have to pass it on.

And you have to become the elder and you have to pick up the weapons of defense and protect the tribe. And you have to take responsibility and you have to raise the children and you have to be an example and you have to make things work.

So there’s no such thing as backing down. When you finally realize that, that’s when life becomes exciting. You don’t have to be self-effacing. You don’t have to say, oh, what I do is not too much. Because whatever you do is enough if you can get it together and pass it on.

That’s one of the things that I’ve learned as I grow older, you know. Oh, don’t have time to crawfish. Don’t have time to say, oh, not me, oh, not me. Who am I? Mm-mmm.

It’s like that story, you know. If you’re too old to fight, well, just walk back there and pick up one of them children and walk as far as you can to give it to somebody else.

Your assignment is never through, so don’t use that as an excuse because, if you’re old, if you’re crippled like I think about revolutionaries, don’t just think you can’t be in the fight just ’cause you’re old.

You know, we got to hit the bricks. You know, we got to hit it. Pick up our crutches and our medications and hit it. Hit the bricks [laugh]. So that’s what I’ve learned from those times and those people.

Tavis: I could listen to you talk all day long. I hear the calling that you and Ossie Davis responded to. But as actors, what made you do that? I mean, there are a lot of folk of that era and certainly a lot of folk of this era who are being told as an actor, you don’t become an activist.

You want to work. You don’t want to offend anybody. You don’t want to take risks. You don’t want to be on the front line. And for you and Ossie, there was never ever, it seems to me at least, any doubt about the fact that you weren’t just actors. You were citizens, you were Black.

All the stuff that you have done all these years, you’ve done sort of unapologetically and almost like with no thought to the impact negative that it might have on your career.

Dee: You know, Tavis, I believe that everything is having to do with the arts. As a matter of fact, I compare this with being a musician. We learn notes and we learn the scale and we learn sounds. And a dancer has steps and the choreography and so forth. And you learn about the composers who you are a musician and the dancers and the writers.

But as an actor – you have certain disciplines in each of these art forms. But as an actor, your schooling, your text, is the whole of life and everybody and everything in it. And the art of becoming anybody and anybody living through you is like lending yourself to this astonishing human experience.

Because it’s an incredible set of circumstances, this thing we call being human. Being a human being is something we shall never stop defining. And that’s why the arts, I think, are so important. They help us to see and understand and begin to understand the magnificence of being a human being.

I find myself having to say that when Lorraine Hansbury says, “How dare you, despairing ones, think that only you know the truth. And how dare you be a human being and despair?”

Because as far as we encompass everything, everybody, our comprehension is even deeper than we know or else we couldn’t invent something we weren’t capable of dreaming up.

We have the equipment to be an Einstein or to be du Bois or to be – that’s our equipment, that’s our territory. We come with it. We come with it and who are we to deny that? We’re so magnificent we don’t even know it. We don’t even know how magnificent we are. You understand what I’m saying.

Tavis: Absolutely, I understand.

Dee: So how dare we, you know, look down our noses at anybody else and indeed at ourselves? We don’t even have enough time to discover how extraordinary we are. And that’s one thing I love about this business of acting.

You can keep peeling away levels and levels and levels and you never get to the end because whatever bottom you think you’ve reached, all you’ve done is open a whole new kettle of fish [laugh].

Tavis: I assume, then, that must be why you still work. Although you have earned your laurels, you keep working.

Dee: Well, yes. I work because – oh, yes, I work because I don’t even like the word retirement [laugh].

Tavis: You don’t even like the word…

Dee: I don’t like the word because…

Tavis: Let alone what it stands for.

Dee: I don’t want to tell myself. I don’t want to tell my structure, my who I am, and all the things that I haven’t even yet discovered about even being human that I’m through now, I’m tired, I’m gonna retire [laugh] because I’m afraid something in me will listen [laugh] and make it possible for me to retire [laugh].

Tavis: Your DNA may pay attention to you.

Dee: I have to encourage whatever the thing that is in me that I don’t know what it’s about yet. I have to encourage the thing. I know you’re here. Go, do your thing and I’ll be here to tell you that you can work through me as long as you want to.

Tavis: This is why I love you so much. This is why I love you so much.

Dee: And also, each age – like we’re getting older now and it’s like every time you get to what you think is the ultimate, it’s like peeling the paper off this – what’s this prize under the thing in the Cracker Jack box? You’re gonna peel that thing back and a whole new door’s gonna open up to you.

You’re gonna peel that thing off and look down there and see a whole new – that’s what I’m finding out in my old age. I don’t say old age. I say the youth of my seniorhood [laugh].

Tavis: The youth of your seniorhood.

Dee: Yes.

Tavis: How do you do this every day? How do you have this attitude every day? How do you have this positive outlook every day post Ossie?

Dee: Well, I think about Ossie the same. He was never a griever. He had us all laughing at his mother’s funeral. Not ha-ha laughing, but we couldn’t cry because he was talking to us about his mother and we had to smile. We had to. There’s something about that we enjoyed – there was something about her whole life we were enjoying. We weren’t thinking about the death.

One thing he used to say all the time, he said when he came to the hospital to see anyone who’s in the hospital or he goes to a funeral, he wasn’t a mourner. If you’re expecting for somebody to come in to cry with you, he was the wrong person because he was going to see something that you’d have to move away from the fear.

And one of his things he was fond of saying about not worrying about something, he’d say, well, we do this and we do that. I should have known something was peculiar about Ossie because sometimes we’d have things hard and I’d borrow money maybe from my father or my mother or something to get us through something. Before I know it, he had lent the money that I had borrowed to somebody else [laugh].

That’s just a small example of the kind of mentality he had. He could have on two socks that matched or not. When I met him, he looked like [gasp]. But I later came to understand that and I understood then what richness was.

And he always used to say to me, to the kids when they started crying, he said, “Well, what can we do to fix that? Well, suppose we do that.” And if they’re still crying, he said, “Well, if you can’t fix it, you just gotta down it and get from around it.”

Tavis: Down it and get from around it.

Dee: Down it and get from around it. That was his favorite.

Tavis: I am pleased and honored as I always am whenever Ruby Dee comes to see me. The legendary actress and activist turned in one of the most talked about movie performances of the year in her Oscar-nominated role in “American Gangster.” This is her first ever Oscar nomination.

She’s also featured on the current cover of Essence magazine. There she is at her gorgeous self. I wish I could see you every night. Because every time I see you, I am empowered, I am enlightened; I am inspired by our conversation.

I was teasing Ruby Dee when she walked out. When her people told me she was going to be in town and made me aware of that, I wanted to have her on the show, but I almost passed on it.

I say that because the last time we talked, we were in New York in your neck of the woods and we are still getting phone calls and emails. People stop me in airports and restaurants and tell me that the best conversation I have ever conducted was with you.

Dee: Well, I appreciate your saying that because we have realized for a long time in a profound way that we are each other. And one of the things even about being an actor is you’re like a vessel.

You’re like a big tunnel through which impulses and people and circumstances and countries and languages and races and sexes and everything passes. But it becomes the stuff of what you do.

You know, like a musician learns the notes and the dancer has the steps and the actor has all of those things. It is the courage of both of us that that’s really some of the stuff of life. We all are students of each other.

We walk through each other, you know. And our job is to relax and just open the door of ourselves and let things come through, being careful, you know, that something comes through that’s not going to damage the entrance [laugh].

Tavis: What do you make of this nomination at this point in your life?

Dee: Of the Oscars, you mean?

Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of it? You’ve already won the SAG, so congratulations on that. But what do you make of this Oscar nomination?

Dee: What do I make of it? You know what? Tavis, I have to tell you. When I was young, first hearing about the Oscars, it was like with my nose against the bakery shop window looking in at all the goodies, knowing that I’m gonna go in there and buy it.

But circumstances pounded it into me that I didn’t have the right to go in there and buy something from that bakery. So I could read the magazines and finally realize I wasn’t going to be a starlet in Hollywood in the stable of young newcomers that came along with the big producing companies.

So I let it go, but something else came in. Our relatives and friends – sometimes the ministers and the intellectuals and people like you who look into the human condition a lot understand this.

But a gate closes in yourself so that you won’t bang your head against any more store windows or bleed on any more iron fences trying to – it doesn’t exist for you anymore. So that’s what happened to me.

Tavis: But it came all back around.

Dee: Yes, but in a different sense because there’s something about racism, you know, that racism destroys self-confidence. It stomps on daring, you know. That’s what it does to our children. It shortens our reach because we begin to believe everything that’s said about us. We buy into it.

Not everybody does. Some young people are stronger than that. And although I thought I was tough and I was a street fighter and everything, as I look back, I was all those things because I didn’t know how to buck the rejection that I felt.

So I backed away from Oscar and Hollywood until, of course, Hattie McDaniel. She wasn’t allowed to come to the – as you heard that story – the ceremony.

Tavis: Couldn’t come, yeah.

Dee: But now things are different in Hollywood. It’s a part of the world that’s growing in its concepts and its outreach and its look of fairness. And some of the most remarkable people I’ve known to help break down the barriers of racism, I’ve learned, have been people like (inaudible) and Jules Dassin, the people like that. So we get all kinds of – Spike Lee and many others.

Tavis: Every time you come on the program, there are four or five jewels you drop. I end up just writing stuff down. So I like that. Racism stomps on daring.

Dee: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: That’s beautiful. It stomps on daring.

Dee: But not everybody. Some people will bowl through anyway. And I thought I would be one of them because I was tough, but I really wasn’t.

Tavis: Everybody keeps saying the same thing which is that it’s a wonderful thing for you to be as chronologically gifted as you are. Here you are at this age chronologically gifted and now receiving an Academy Award.

I said when we started the program, as everybody now knows, that if you are to win on Sunday night, you’ll be the oldest actor to ever walk upon the stage and accept an Academy Award.

Dee: You don’t mean?

Tavis: Yeah. That’s what I read. That’s what they tell me. I think that’s true. But I raise that only because I want to ask you, Ruby Dee, before my time runs out.

I want to ask you of all the things that you have done – I don’t want to take anything away from your wonderful role in “American Gangster.” You did your thing in this project.

But is there a particular role in your life that you’ve played that you think was as Academy worthy as what you did in “American Gangster?”

Dee: Well, things are so relative. I see things for which I’m very proud.

Tavis: What are you really proud of?

Dee: You mean in film?

Tavis: In film, yeah.

Dee: Oh, I’m proud of having been in Ossie’s play, “Purlie Victorious” and the humor, the satire in that. I’m proud of doing “Long Day’s Journey into Night” for which I won an ACE award. And then the three seasons that I worked with Ossie on public television…

Tavis: Oh, yeah, in New York, yeah.

Dee: Are the most exciting years of my life. And I say that because they trusted us to do whatever we wanted to do. We did adaptations. We wrote original material for three seasons. We had all kinds of guests on our shows. I’m trying desperately to bring some of those things back.

And we also wrote material. It was the freest we’ve ever been to do whatever we wanted to do. And although we were limited in budget, it also taught us how to do what you need to do without spending the money.

So not because I’m sitting here, but that’s one of the reasons I say about public television. I’m not making any commercials. I’ve done some pictures and things like that, but I frankly believe in the freedom and the creative process that permits us really to exchange ideas without any barriers, without any holds barred. You understand?

Tavis: I understand. Not only do I understand, I’m sure the executives at PBS, although you didn’t mean it as a commercial, will take that and cut it up and it’ll be used in play-it spots somewhere in the not too distant future [laugh].

I wish I had more time, but I’m always honored when she comes by to see me. Her name, of course, Ruby Dee. I love you, and all the best on Sunday night.

Dee: Oh, bless your heart, yes.

[End previous conversation]

Tavis: Over her long life and distinguished career, Ruby Dee earned not only honors, but the love and respect of her family, her friends, her community and her country. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: June 19, 2014 at 12:12 am