Ruby Dee, Pioneering American Actress, Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 91

With husband and frequent co-star Ossie Davis, she emceed 1963 March on Washington where King gave 'I Have a Dream' speech.

Reuters

Ruby Dee, an acclaimed actress and civil rights activist whose versatile career spanned stage, radio television and film, has died at age 91, according to her daughter.

Nora Davis Day told The Associated Press on Thursday that her mother died at home in New Rochelle, N.Y. on Wednesday night of "natural causes."

Dee's long career, in which she frequently acted alongside her husband of 56 years, Ossie Davis, brought her an Oscar nomination at age 83 for best supporting actress for her maternal role in the 2007 film "American Gangster." She also won an Emmy and was nominated for several others.

Dee and Davis, who died in 2005, were frequent collaborators. Their partnership rivaled the achievements of other celebrated acting couples. But they were more than performers; they were also activists who fought for civil rights, particularly for blacks.

"We used the arts as part of our struggle," she said in 2006. "Ossie said he knew he had to conduct himself differently with skill and thought."

Both were active in civil rights issues and efforts to promote the cause of blacks in the entertainment industry and elsewhere. Dee and Davis served as masters of ceremonies for the historic 1963 March on Washington and she spoke at both the funerals for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X.

Arrested in 1999 protest

The couple's battle in that arena was lifelong: In 1999, the couple was arrested while protesting the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, by New York City police.

Among her best-known films was "A Raisin in the Sun," in 1961, based on the classic play that explored racial discrimination and black frustration (she was also in the 1959 stage version). On television, she was on the soap operas such in the 1950s and '60s, a rare sight for a black actress in the 1950s and 60s.

Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Dee was an infant when her family moved to Harlem, New York. She graduated from a highly competitive high school and enrolled in college but longed for show business.

"I wanted to be an actor but the chances for success did not look promising," she wrote in their joint autobiography.

But in 1940 she got a part in a Harlem production of a new play, "On Strivers Row," which she later called "one giant step" to becoming a person and a performer.

In 1965, she became the first black woman to play lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. She won an Obie Award for the title role in Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena" and a Drama Desk Award for her role in "Wedding Band."

Most recently, Dee performed her one-woman stage show, "My One Good Nerve: A Visit With Ruby Dee," in theaters across the country. The show was a compilation of some of the short stories, humor and poetry in her book of the same title.