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Delany Sisters' victory over tears and years

"God has use for all the old people," says actress Ruby Dee.

Ms. Dee plays a centenarian reflecting on life in "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" (CBS, Sunday, April 18, 9-11 p.m.). She says she believes in keeping up the good fight - long after retirement age.

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Reached by phone at her home in New York, the veteran actress says she identifies with the feisty lady she portrays, Bessie, the younger of the two Delany sisters whose lives spanned the 20th century. The sisters, daughters of a former slave who later became the first African-American Episcopal bishop, achieved much as professional women, both before and after formal retirement.

The film reveals the story of their lives in flashbacks, as told to Amy Madigan (Amy Hill Hearth), a New York Times reporter who co-wrote the original book with the real sisters.

At first, the reporter meets hostility in Bessie, a retired dentist, but easily wins over Sadie (Diahann Carroll), a retired schoolteacher. As the ladies gradually share their experiences, we learn the reasons behind Bessie's hostility toward white people. They range from narrowly escaping lynching to the humiliations and constraints of the Jim Crow laws, and the racially motivated impediments to autonomy and advancement thrown up like roadblocks through her schooling and career.

Daughters of a white bishop would never have had to struggle as the Delany sisters did. But struggle made them powerful women, too.

Actress Dee was inspired as a child just knowing there was a black woman dentist in the neighborhood where she grew up; Bessie's office was located a few blocks from Dee's parents' house. She even once considered becoming a dentist herself.

When she was cast as Bessie, Dee thought of her own step-mother, a woman she loved dearly and respected greatly.

"My stepmother came from the same time as Bessie, she grew up in the South like Bessie. She was a fighter like Bessie, and she was ambitious. She believed in education," Dee recalls.

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"The value systems [of her stepmother and Bessie] were just the same - that generation once removed from slavery had a strong feeling for accomplishment and dedication and uplifting the race. They were very much involved in the political scene and in fighting for justice - as accustomed as they were to lynchings."

In those early days of the 20th century, Dee explains, any black man who bought a business, even just to serve his own people, or otherwise succeeded economically was often lynched in the South.

Dee's own parents faced struggles and believed in achievement. And in achievement "there was a joyousness - it was all about uplifting the race. What you did to make yourself worthy was help people to learn to read."

The quietly heartening film, while delivering an important message on race relations, is also a tribute to the substantial contributions older citizens can make to society.

"I hope people will be reminded [by this film] that life doesn't end at 65," Dee says. "We've plenty of juice to do other things. We've had the Industrial Revolution and the Information Revolution, now its time for the Moral and Spiritual Revolution.

"We're going to have to be in the vanguard of that spiritual and moral revolution, we're going to have to be soldiers over 65. I think we can make a difference."

Director Lynne Littman is white, but the project came to her because of her uncommon understanding of elders. She won an Academy Award for her documentary "Number Our Days" about nursing-home residents.

Ms. Littman admires the book and the stage play from which her film is adapted, but she obviously delights in the fact that the message of the book and play now will find a place on TV.

"Out of the mouth of age comes the truth," she says of the Delany sisters. "Of course, we're used to getting the truth in books - sometimes from the stage. But we are not used to the truth on TV. We're not used to people who are intelligent, articulate, and passionate on TV, either."

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