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The Daily Beast

Cicely Tyson: An Actress and Civil-Rights Icon for the Ages

Stephen Lovekin/GettyCicely Tyson’s legacy in art and entertainment is one that feels infinite—as if she’s always been there and always will be. An almost-divine figure for generations of fans, peers and disciples, Tyson, who died on Jan. 28 at the age of 96, married brilliant dramatic performances to an empowered sensibility. She was committed to roles that she felt uplifted Black womanhood in some way, and though it sometimes led to periods of inactivity, it sustained a body of work as significant as it is gripping.She was born in Harlem on December 19, 1924, the daughter of immigrants from the island of Nevis. Raised in a devoutly Episcopalian household, she was forbidden even from going to the movies.After she was casually told that she should try modeling, Tyson appeared in a hair show and registered at Barbara Watson Modeling School. Soon thereafter she gave up her job as a secretary for the American Red Cross and quickly became one of the top Black models in the country. She would later admit that her time modeling was unfulfilling: “I felt like a machine,” she told Time magazine.Modeling, too, was merely a steppingstone. While she was waiting for an appointment with Ebony magazine’s fashion editor, Tyson was spotted by actress Evelyn Davis. According to Tyson, “When I walked by, she took one look at me and said, ‘Lord, what a face!’ She said I’d be perfect for a movie then in production called The Spectrum. It was about the problems between light-skinned and dark-skinned Blacks. I auditioned for the part and I got it. Actually, the film was never released because the money ran out—but here I am.” Draymond Green Sounds Off on Trump and American Racism: ‘Time’s Up’Her decision to act infuriated her deeply-religious mother and led to estrangement between them that lasted for years.Tyson studied under such theatrical luminaries as Lee Strasberg, Lloyd Richards, and Vinnette Carroll. In 1961, she joined the now legendary cast of the original off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, a production that starred, at various times throughout its run, a host of actors who would become household names.“That play produced Maya Angelou, myself, Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, (playwright Charles) Gordone, who won the Pulitzer Prize (for No Place to Be Somebody). Every Black actor of note came through that show,” Tyson said in a 1995 interview. “It ran for three years, and in the course of its existence, we all left, went off and did other things and came back. I was in and out of it four times.”Tyson starred on television alongside George C. Scott as a social worker in the 1963 television series East Side/West Side, the first time an African-American actor had a starring role on a major TV series.Performance was a platform for Tyson. She used that platform to address civil rights issues at a time when the country was raging through turbulent change. “I was on the stage. Every play I did had to do with the civil rights movement. Every single piece addressed it.” Her natural hair on full display on television and in movies was a revelation and a revolution; she became an icon of a burgeoning movement for Black women. As a prominent darker-skinned woman, her visibility flew in the face of ongoing colorism that was always attached to the systemic racism Black actresses were facing in Hollywood.Tyson spent the ’60s in several brief-running Broadway shows before playing Portia in the 1968 film adaptation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Another noteworthy role came in 1972, when she played Rebecca Morgan in Martin Ritt’s Sounder, a performance that netted her an Academy Award nomination. And in 1974, she delivered a career-defining performance in the TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, an adaptation of the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. Tyson earned raves and two Emmy awards for her depiction of the life of a former slave.An interviewer once told Tyson that she didn’t know Black people had loving sexual relationships until she saw Sounder. The actress was taken aback by the callous ignorance in the statement. “When I regained my composure, I asked her, ‘You thought we were less than human?’” Tyson said.She said the interviewer’s defense was that she had not known any Black people growing up nor had she attended school with African-Americans.“Your guilt, for me, lies in your innocence,” said Tyson, summing it up succinctly.Tyson would go on to more supporting roles in classic television miniseries; notably in the highly-rated television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977; and in the Oprah Winfrey-produced The Women of Brewster Place, a 1989 miniseries based on Gloria Naylor’s novel. She won another Emmy for her performance in the 1994 TV movie Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and starred in a 1998 television adaptation of Haley’s Mama Flora’s Family. In the 2010s, she had recurring roles on popular TV series like House of Cards and How to Get Away with Murder. Tyson won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance as Miss Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful.Tyson was only nominated for one Academy Award in her career but was awarded an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar by the Academy in 2018. When asked about the attempts by the Academy to be more inclusive in nominating and awarding actors and filmmakers of color, Tyson was forthright. U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to actress Cicely Tyson during an East Room ceremony at the White House November 22, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty