Trailblazing Actress And Civil Rights Activist Cicely Tyson Lifeless At 96


Cicely Tyson at the Paley Center in 2015

Kristina Bumphrey / Starpix / Shutterstock

Actress and civil rights activist Cicely Tyson died Thursday at the age of 96 after decades of unique, groundbreaking roles on Broadway and Hollywood.

Her death was announced by her longtime manager, who did not give any cause of death.

Tyson was born in East Harlem in 1924. He worked as a typist for the Red Cross before becoming a model for Ebony Magazine and, according to several reports, studied at the Actors Studio.

Her career often defied the stereotypical roles black women were relegated to during her seven decades of acting, and sometimes went jobless due to her principles. “She criticized films and television programs that identified black characters as criminal, submissive, or immoral, and insisted that African Americans, even if they are poor or oppressed, should be portrayed with dignity,” according to the New York Times.

Tyson’s stage success began early – she was Eartha Kitt’s understudy in the Broadway production of Jolly’s Progress in 1959 and appeared in the 1961 off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks with James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett Jr. She won a Drama Desk award for her off-Broadway appearance in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl in 1962 – her first acting award of many, Playbill said.

After several supporting roles, including Portia in the film adaptation of Carson McCuller’s ‘The Heart is A Lonely Hunter,’ Tyson found fame in 1972 for her role in Sounder, where she portrayed the head of a southern sharecropper family and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden on Globe .

Another production by Sounder


Paul Winfield, Yvonne Jarrell, Erick Hooks, Cicely Tyson, Kevin Hooks and Taj Mahal in “Sounder”

20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

“The story in Sounder is part of our history, a testament to the strength of humanity,” Tyson told the New York Times in a 1972 interview. “Our entire black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity. The black woman has never been shown on screen like this. “

In 1974 she won an Emmy for Miss Jane Pittman’s Autobiography and became the first black woman to win an Emmy for a Leading Actress.

Her resume reads like a list of some of the most iconic roles on film and screen. According to the Times, Tyson had an incredible stretch where she “played Kunta Kinte’s mother in a 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s Roots … Coretta Scott King on the 1978 NBC miniseries King about Rev. Dr. The Final Years of Martin Luther King Jr. … Harriet Tubman, whose Underground Railroad freed slaves, in A Woman Called Moses (1978); and … a Chicago teacher devoted to poor children in The Marva Collins Story (1981). In 1994 she won an Emmy for supporting actress for her portrayal of Castalia in the miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

This cuts deep. @IAmCicelyTyson was my first canvas mom .. elegance, warmth, beauty, wisdom, style and abundant grace. She was as royal as they come. As an artist at the highest level, I will love her forever … ♥ ️ RIP

– LeVar Burton (@levarburton) January 29, 2021

I am devastated. My heart is just broken I loved you so much !! You were everything for me! You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls. You gave me permission to dream …

– Viola Davis (@violadavis) January 29, 2021

Her legacy also includes decades of civil rights work and community building. At the height of the civil rights movement, Tyson became a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem. “In 1994, a building in East Harlem where she lived as a child was named after her. it and three others were rehabilitated for 58 poor families. In 1995, a magnet school they supported in East Orange, New Jersey, was renamed the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, ”the Times said. “She was honored by the Racial Equality Congress, the NAACP – she was an eight-time Image Award winner and 15-time nominee – and the National Council of Negresses. In 1977 she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, ”said Deadline.

In 2015 she was the guest of honor at the Kennedy Center, where a choir from her school of the same name performed her favorite gospel song “Blessed Assurance”:

She was married to jazz legend Miles Davis from 1981 to 1989, although they remained friends until his death in 1991.

“I wish people knew the Miles Davis I knew,” Tyson told NPR in a recent interview. “Not only was he brilliantly talented, he was brilliantly sensitive. And this is the Miles Davis that people … don’t know he’s been trying to protect.” Tyson is survived by a daughter from their first marriage.

In addition to her three Emmys, Tyson won a Tony for the eldest person in 2013 at the age of 88 for her role as Mrs. Carrie Watts in a revival of The Trip to Bountiful. In 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

In her extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson was one of the rare award-winning actresses whose work on screen was only matched by what she could achieve with it. She had a heart like no other – and for 96 years she shaped the world few will ever reach.

– Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 29, 2021

She won an honorary Oscar in 2018 – again the first ever to be given to a black woman – and said during her acceptance speech: “I don’t know that I would appreciate a better gift than this. This is the culmination of all these years of having and not have. “

At the beginning of her career, Cicely Tyson promised herself that she would only portray strong women. Harriet Tubman. Coretta Scott King. Miss Jane Pittman and so many others. As an honorary Oscar winner in 2019 for her extraordinary work, she set a good example and we will miss her.

– The Academy (@TheAcademy) January 29, 2021

Tyson was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2018 and the Television Hall of Fame in 2020. In 2020 she won the Peabody Award. Last month, Tyson also released her long-awaited memoir Just As I Am:

Comments are closed.