Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2005 / 2 Adar I 5765
Two men, so different yet so much alike in principle
Since we all have to die at some time or another, it is eerily ironic that the Almighty would choose the beginning of Black History Month to take Ossie Davis and Max Schmeling from us. Surely there is a G-d, I figure, and She is trying to tell us something.
Davis, a giant of the stage, screen and human rights movement, died apparently of natural causes on Friday in Miami Beach. He was 87.
Schmeling, best remembered for his two historic heavyweight bouts with the late Joe Louis, died on Wednesday, Feb. 2, at his home in Hollenstedt, Germany. He was 99.
These seemingly different men had a lot in common. Each is remembered best as a performer who had a rich baritone voice and a gentlemanly reputation. Less well remembered are the various ways each of them showed us how a true gentleman must also be a man of principle, even at great personal risk on behalf of others.
Schmeling is mainly remembered for his sensational upset knockout of Louis in 1936, and for losing a first-round technical knockout to Louis in 1938. Adolf Hitler's government tried to promote him as an icon of so-called Aryan supremacy, at least until he was beaten by "the Brown Bomber." Nevertheless, Schmeling defied the Nazi hierarchy by refusing to fire his two principal advisers, who happened to be American Jews.
And, as Jewish hotel executive Henri Lewin revealed in 1989 in Las Vegas, Schmeling hid Lewin and his brother from Nazis for four days in 1938 when they were teens in Germany, at a time when hiding Jews would have gotten them and Schmeling killed.
After Schmeling survived postwar poverty to become holder of Germany's Coca-Cola franchise, he became a close friend with Louis, gave him financial help when he was down and out and paid for Louis' funeral after his death in 1981. Thus did an unwilling icon of Nazism become an international model of reconciliation.
Davis, whose acting and activism with his superstar wife, Ruby Dee, go back to the 1930s, faced a different set of hard choices in his life. He and his wife stood up for black scholar W.E.B. DuBois and black Renaissance man Paul Robeson against bogus charges of communist subversion, despite the potential risk to their own careers in the days of the Hollywood red scare.
He truly lived black history. Everywhere you turned in the great events of racial progress for the last half century, you saw Davis getting arrested in the Southern protests against racial segregation, speaking at Martin Luther King's 1963 march on Washington, delivering the eulogy at the funeral of his friend Malcolm X. You name it. Yet, despite his many protests over his country's policies, he said, when I heard him speak at the National Press Club last year, that he never lost his love for this country and that love has been rewarded by the racial progress we have made.
Once angry at the United States for its tolerance of racial segregation, he was in town this time to host a Memorial Day concert special on PBS and help raise money to honor his fellow World War II veterans.
It is customary in obituaries to refer to someone as marking "the passing of an era." Davis and Schmeling represent the transition to a newer, better era, a time when people can judge each other for what they are, not for the tribe to which they belong.
With that in mind, I was struck by another news item: Just 29.7 percent of the nation's college freshmen characterized "helping to promote racial understanding" as an essential or very important personal goal, according to the latest annual poll of college freshmen by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. That was the lowest level ever in the 28 years that the poll has raised the question, researchers said.
If that's a sign of our vastly improved racial climate, it could be good news, in a way. But there was a vast gap between the responses of white and nonwhite freshmen. While 54.8 percent of blacks and 43.6 percent of Latinos called helping to promote racial understanding as essential or very important, only 23.5 percent of white freshmen felt that way.
That gap makes me wonder whether the next generation needs to pay more attention to how well we Americans get along.
After all, if our kids don't care, where will the next generation of peacemakers come from?
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