The University Record, February 11, 2002

Ossie Davis closes MLK symposium with call for action

By Theresa Maddix

“The moral assignment of the age has to be the elimination of poverty,” actor, activist and author Ossie Davis, told those assembled for the closing Martin Luther King Jr symposium lecture Feb. 6 at Chesebrough Auditorium on North Campus.

Davis cited figures from a recent United Nations study stating that there are more than 6.1 billion people alive today. A large percentage of these people do not have access to enough food and resources to keep themselves alive. Half of the people in the world work for less than $2 a day.

“Here on this historic campus in 1964, our great president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, announced to all the world a new initiative sponsored by the government in the spirit of Martin and several others. It was called the War on Poverty. There is symbolism here. It doesn’t hurt us to go back to the places where certain things began and ask ourselves, ‘What became of those initiatives announced so boldly and so bravely on this campus?”’

Shortly after the war on poverty was announced, Johnson’s attention turned to a perceived threat at the Gulf of Tongking and then to the complexities of the Vietnam War, Davis said. Johnson’s plan to combat poverty was never implemented.

Davis asked, “What would have happened had we had the chance unimpeded to see the full working out of the Model Cities program, of the War on Poverty, of the efforts to rebuild our cities, the efforts to provide jobs to those of us who needed it?”

Stepping further back to 1876, at the end of the Reconstruction period and working forward, Davis set the scene for the emergence of King and other leaders in the Civil Rights struggle.

In the 1960s, “the television discovered what was going on and sent the cameras down and took pictures of Black people marching beside the buses on which nobody was riding,” said Davis. “And listened to this young man with his wide hat named Martin Luther King who was talking about non-violence.”

At the beginning of the Vietnam War, King continued to work with and respect President Johnson.

Davis said, “He wanted, above all, not to be seen as somebody who was disloyal at a time of war. Still it was a matter of conscience. It was a matter of leadership and it was a matter of responsibility.”

At Riverside Church in 1967, King broke with Johnson and made himself the leader of the war on poverty. “Martin says, ‘No I can’t go on with the war. America is in danger and needs to fight against war. It needs to fight racism and needs to fight poverty.’ Martin Luther King isolated himself. He became more and more convinced he had to do something to fight poverty.”

“Martin said it to us loud and clear,” said Davis. “We must either live together as brothers or perish together as fools. Shall we be brothers? Shall we be fools? The choice is up to us.

“I look for those who will say to themselves, ‘Yes, yes, yes, this is what we must do, even at the cost of lives for some of us. We mustn’t be impatient. We mustn’t be in too much of a hurry. We must give time, time to do its work. For us, we need to be in a stand by mode. Ready when the call comes to pick up the knapsack, rejoin the line and march.”

“We can’t afford to let Martin go just yet,” said Davis. “There’s juice in the old man that we’ve still got to have access to.” The life of King, according to Davis, is a model of leadership. It shows the “craft of being in a position to help lead people to a fairer and more just society.”