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ADDRESS AT THE PALM GARDEN
October 10, 1952
(Originally distributed by the National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions)
R.D.: No doubt about it! It was not the best of times -- especially for white America. Black America already knew about witch hunts, about what happens to troublemakers wanting to vote -- lynching, castration, job discrimination. Say what? Communism? Socialism? Liberalism? Are you now or have you ever been...? Weren't you one of those at a meeting on...? Isn't this your picture published in...? People fired. Dying. Broke. Running. Lying. Being brave. Selling out. Betrayal. It was definitely one of the worst of times.
It is my honor and my privilege to be with you tonight in this meeting of protest. The inquisition is upon us, and our very right to meet together and talk like this is under fire. All over the country, men and women are becoming increasingly aware of what is happening to their freedom. Teachers of many years of service are fired without hearings. Actors are barred from employment because they refuse to be bullied about their politics. Lawyers, doctors, miners, longshoremen, newsmen, and publishers are all being violently pushed around in the grossest violation of civil rights in the history of the Republic. But, thank God, they are fighting back. The McCarran Committee has not found itself welcomed everywhere. Men are beginning to remember what liberty means to them and have not hesitated, in some places, to drive the witch hunter from their midst. We here tonight can take courage from all the various groups and individuals who have had the guts to put the boot to this evil thing. They have shown that it can be fought. And it must be fought -- with every weapon an aroused democracy can lay its hands upon.
I wrote a play called Alice in Wonder, which we presented briefly -- all too briefly -- up in Harlem a week or so ago. And on the basis of that I was invited to come here tonight and speak to you. It wasn't much, this play, but it was mine. And it gave my wife, Miss Ruby Dee -- whom I consider the potential equal of any actress in the land -- a chance to practice her craft. Few Negroes get that opportunity these days. "Black Channels," you know -- For I must tell you that economic interdiction (which means that nobody will hire you, no matter how good you are) is not a new thing to us. Negro teachers have long been the victims of the most arrant job discrimination in this city. And Negro actors who work once every five years are doing pretty well. I myself have been lucky -- in six years I have managed to work in eight shows on Broadway; and five times out of that eight I carried a tray. I had to. There was nothing else for black performers to carry. Oh yes, I have heard of Red Channels, and I am horrified every time I see it in action. That a man should be banished from his profession without recourse, merely as a consequence of the color of his politics, is as grossly unjust as that a man should suffer the same punishment merely as a consequence of the color of his face. Red Channels or Black Channels -- there's precious little difference to a man with a family to feed. Both these evil things attack me through my need for security, and I cannot hate the one without detesting the other. The good citizen is at war with both!
But back to Alice in Wonder. In it, I tried to show two things: first, how absolutely heartbreaking it is to ask a man to give up his bread for his principles; and second, how absolutely necessary it is that he should do just that. For the true function of drama is to remind us that man is dedicated to the pursuit of the good, in spite of himself, and that to pursue the good successfully, he must know the alternatives and choose wisely from among them.
The man I wrote about found himself in a predicament increasingly familiar to us all: he had either to hunt with the hounds of McCarthy and McCarran, or to run with the hares and the victims: the harassed, the persecuted, the falsely stigmatized. To sacrifice his honor in order to keep his job -- or have no job to keep. This is indeed a bitter choice. The man I wrote about made one decision. His wife, who loved him dearly, made another. They went their separate ways, and the play was ended.
But for us the curtain is still up. The crisis is at hand, the villain waits in the wings, his cue has been sounded, he makes his entrance -- Senator McCarran has come. And to what end, we know only too well. The day is almost gone when any actor could get a job, or any teacher hold one, provided he had the talent and the training; when any playwright, no matter how controversial or nonconforming, could find some producer to put on his works; when any play, however dissenting, had a fair chance to find its audience -- uncensored and unencumbered. Now the investigator is kind; controversy gives way to conformity; the rest is silence. The inquisitorial nose has found the theater a fleshpot of liberal ideas and practices, a cesspool of light and of joy, the one place on our national scene where democracy was close to coming alive. Such an aura of high spirits, such an atmosphere of universal goodwill was hardly conducive to the hunting of witches. It had to be destroyed. From now on, Senator McCarran proposes to write the dialogue.
It has been said of the theater that it is vain, that it is foolish, that it is trivial. That it has nothing of consequence to say, that it is no longer the conscience of the nation, that it does not concern itself with the bitter realities of life, that it has cut itself off from its roots in the masses, that it has become the self-indulgent vocal cords of privilege. All too often these charges have been justified.
But, is this all? Is this the picture completely? Is this the whole story? No! There have been giants among us, and few as they have been, they have left a heritage worth defending. The theater is not dead. It is very much alive. And we must keep it alive because we need it now more than ever. There is hope to be fetched, and faith to be carried. There is the problem to be defined, the strength to be mobilized, a conscience to be aroused, an enemy to be defeated. The theater has work to do. The great witch hunter is upon us. He is formidable. He is evil, but he can be stopped. He must be stopped, and together we can do the job. The future of the meaning of America is being decided, and I call upon each of us here tonight to put his hand into the making of that decision. The issue is simple: to surrender the most precious item in our democratic storehouse -- the Bill of Rights -- into the hands of its despisers; or to turn and defend it with all the force and fire at our command. There is but one course left consistent with honor, dignity, and human decency. Free men will always fight!
Copyright © 2006 by The Estate of Ossie Davis