The following is excerpted from a speech given at a tribute to the life of former New York City Councilman Benjamin J. Davis, held at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Oct. 16.The author is executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA.
To honor Benjamin J. Davis Jr. is to honor the best traditions of our people and our working class.
Davis’ papers are housed here in the beautiful Schomburg Center, which makes it possible for future generations of scholars and researchers to find out about his great legacy. For this we are profoundly grateful to this courageous institution, which has played an extraordinary role in preserving the history of our people.
Ben Davis was born in Dawson, Ga., into a prominent African American family on Sept. 8, 1903. His grandparents lived under slavery. His father was the editor and publisher of a widely read, militant Black newspaper, The Atlanta Independent. Benjamin Davis Sr. was also elected to the Republican National Committee, an event that was marked by the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses on his front lawn.
Ben Sr. was in charge of all of the Republican political patronage in the state of Georgia. So young Ben was used to seeing Blacks and whites regularly come to his father seeking his help because of the resources he controlled. Ben grew up knowing that he was inferior to no one.
Davis attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and then Amherst in Massachusetts, where he received his bachelor’s degree at age 22. From Amherst he was admitted to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1930.
Angelo Herndon’s trial
Davis passed the Georgia Bar and began practicing law in Atlanta. One of his first cases was defending Angelo Herndon. Herndon was a leader of the local Young Communist League, which led a march of Black and white unemployed for “Jobs or Bread.” The police broke up the march, and roughed up and arrested Herndon.
Because Herndon had Marxist literature on him, he was charged with “insurrection,” based on an old statute left over from slavery. Nineteen-year-old Herndon faced the death penalty. No established lawyer would take his case. But Ben Davis stepped forward and took the case pro bono.
During the trial the judge was vicious. He denied any motions that Davis made. He referred to Herndon and Davis with the “n” word and as “darkies.” This was a typical Jim Crow court that railroaded our people. And it feared the growing influence of the Communist Party and the left in the working-class upsurge during the Great Depression.
Herndon was convicted by the racist court. He was spared the death penalty, but was sentenced to 20 years on a Georgia chain gang.
Thanks to a worldwide campaign carried out by the International Labor Defense headed by distinguished Harlemite and Communist leader William L. Patterson, Herndon’s conviction was eventually overturned by a 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and he was freed.
The trial was a turning point for Davis. In the heart of the battle against racism and anticommunism, and after studying and discussing with Herndon the science and outlook of Marxism, Davis joined the Communist Party, just like tens of thousands of others did during the Depression. As Davis put it, “It required only a moment to join, but my whole lifetime as an American Negro prepared me for that moment.”
That was 1933. Davis’ prestige grew, and he became an outstanding civil rights leader and lawyer and the most public Communist in Georgia. However, threats from the racists became so intense that by 1935 Davis and his comrades decided that it would be wise for him to move from his home state. And that’s when he came to New York and settled in Harlem.
Davis goes to Harlem
In no time he became deeply involved in the struggles and aspirations of the people living in the capital of Black America. Harlem during the Depression was in motion. It was the mecca of African American political and cultural life. Davis and his party were right in the middle of it. He had a solid relationship with the N.Y. labor movement, the Black churches and Black fraternal organizations.
The Communist Party’s broad approach brought it into coalition with all kinds of democratic forces, from students at Columbia University and the City Colleges to followers of Marcus Garvey, YMCA activists and Father Divine’s church. Davis was close to Paul Robeson, Henry Winston, Jim Jackson, Louis Burnham and many other outstanding comrades in struggle. The party was in the forefront of the fight for Black liberation and solidarity with all people oppressed by imperialism worldwide.
Davis had a special relationship with Adam Clayton Powell. Though they had different ideological perspectives, they were in solid agreement on the need for the liberation of their people. They agreed that racism and discrimination had to be eliminated, along with poor schools and inadequate health care, poverty, slum housing and police brutality. They agreed on the liberation of Africa and the need to defeat fascism wherever it raised its ugly head.
That left-center, working-class and Harlem-based multiracial coalition challenged the powerful financial interests that controlled Harlem, and forced real change.
When Powell, the first African American elected to the New York City Council, was elected to Congress, he enthusiastically supported Davis to take his seat on the council.
‘Fighting Ben,’ Communist councilman from Harlem
Davis won his race, receiving 44,000 votes. This was 1943, at the height of the war against fascism. After a struggle, Davis entered the council as the second African American and the second Communist. He joined his comrade Peter V. Cacchione, who had earlier been elected from Brooklyn.
Davis was re-elected in 1945, this time with over 65,000 votes. Although most of the council consisted of Tammany Hall machine conservatives, Davis and Cacchione logged an impressive legislative record, introducing over 100 progressive bills. They were the first members of council to establish neighborhood offices, something we take for granted today.
Known as “fighting Ben” on the streets of Harlem, Davis was an outstanding fighter for the people. He introduced the bill that established the first official “Negro History Week” celebration, and it passed. When Stuyvesant Town, a Rockefeller-sponsored housing complex on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, refused to rent to Blacks and Jews, Davis was right in the center of the fight against discrimination.
When the government limited immigration from the Caribbean, Davis fought against it. When no African American or Latino could own a liquor store in Harlem, it was Davis who led the fight to end this discrimination.
Davis fought against the Taft-Hartley Act and supported the efforts of organized labor, which helped make New York a union town.
Davis was in the forefront of the fight to integrate professional baseball.
And finally, Davis was a strong supporter of socialism and the Soviet Union — the first socialist republic. He fought against the Cold War anticommunism and he, like the legendary W.E.B. Du Bois, saw anticommunism as directly related to racism here at home.
Cold War at home
When the McCarthy era hit, Davis was one of the first targets. He was charged under the Smith Act along with 10 other Communist leaders for conspiring “to advocate and teach the principles of Marxism-Leninism” and to “overthrow the government by force and violence” at some unspecified time in the future. He was eventually removed from City Council, three months before his term was out. He was not allowed to run again and was imprisoned for five years, not because of anything he had done, but because of his political beliefs.
“My record is public,” Davis said in a speech on radio station WMCA, Oct. 5, 1949. “I have made scores of speeches and written scores of articles about 18 years of public life. Could they find a single speech — or even a line of a speech — in which I advocated the forceful overthrow of our government? They could not. If they would have done so, they would have quickly put that material into evidence.”
The Smith Act falsely defined what a Communist was (using the same definition Adolf Hitler used) and the court proceeded to convict Davis and his comrades, who were civil rights fighters, labor leaders and peace supporters, based on that false definition. This attack was designed to intimidate the whole movement and it did.
It’s clear that the Smith Act, the McCarran Act and the House Un-American Activities Committee were not only unconstitutional, they were total frauds. They were not about protecting liberties; they were designed to take away liberties. And the courts ultimately found these acts to be contrary to the U.S. Constitution.
Today’s ghost of McCarthy
When I saw the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” two things struck me.
One was that Edward R. Murrow’s opposition to Sen. Joseph McCarthy was courageous, but it came after people like Davis and other Communist Party leaders — Gus Hall, Henry Winston, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and their comrades — stood up and were unlawfully sent to jail. They stood up first.
While the movie exposes some of the horrors of McCarthyism, it unfortunately perpetuates a distorted image of the Communists. It thereby obscures one of the great lessons of the McCarthy period: when the government took away the rights of the Communist Party, it took away the democratic rights of everyone.
Second, the movie shows a similarity between the politics of George W. Bush today and those of McCarthy. It is as if McCarthy’s ghost went to the White House and entered the body of Bush. McCarthy’s notion that anyone who disagreed with him was supporting the Communists is the same as Bush’s notion that “you are either with me or you’re with the terrorists.”
During the Smith Act time Davis said that what this really was about was the government trying “to overthrow the people.”
The Patriot Act is a fraud. Bush and company have used the 9/11 tragedy to go to war for oil and world domination, while eliminating rights here at home. The legislation they are pushing is designed to curb the democratic rights of the U.S. people, especially the right to dissent.
They are using the tragedy of Katrina to remove thousands of victims of racism, exploitation and oppression from their long established homes in the Gulf and to turn over the people’s valuable real estate to Bush and Cheney’s friends at Halliburton, to the greedy developers and profiteers. And to add insult to injury, they want to finance this by making additional cuts in working-class entitlements, transferring tens of billions to the wealthy developers and war profiteers.
While the oil companies are allowed to rob the people blind, this administration was advocating shooting down and arresting hungry Black families who only wanted to find some food.
If “fighting Ben” was here he would advocate a new Marshall Plan to rebuild our country, not martial law to destroy our rights.
The 2006 elections are a very important way of sending a powerful message that we must reverse the dangerous ultra-right direction that this administration and the congressional majority are taking our country in. We must not allow them to overthrow the people.
Right a wrong
Part of this fightback is to right a terrible wrong and honor Ben Davis. Even though he made an enormous contribution to the people of Harlem, for justice and freedom for all of humanity, there is not even a streetlamp named after him. It’s time to right this wrong by:
* Naming a street after Ben Davis (for starters)
* Bringing this injustice to the City Council, calling on its members to recognize Davis’ contribution and start the process reversing his unlawful removal
* Starting a legal project to take an honest look at the Smith Act and to start removing the effects of such terrible, repressive laws.
Please join with us to help the “Committee to Honor Benjamin J. Davis” succeed in this worthy cause.
As Davis’ one-time campaign slogan put it, “The future belongs to the people.” But for that to happen we have to fight for it. So let us unite in a struggle for a great future.
Voices honoring Davis
Davis’ message is just as important today as ever, given the tighter control of the media and when you think about the social injustices that are taking place, not only in our city, but throughout this country.
Bill Perkins, N.Y. City Council deputy majority leader
Ben Davis had been indicted in the middle of his second campaign. Davis’ election during that period was a stunning victory in the struggle for democracy.
Dr. Gerald Meyer, historian
Ben Davis was a role model for those of us who felt that something was wrong with a system where certain people were making all the money, and other people were starving, dying of not getting health care, dying of not getting nutrition.
Frank Barbaro, former N.Y. state assemblyman and N.Y. Supreme Court judge
He and I attended a meeting with John Lewis [in the 1960s], then head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and we organized a number of young people, Black and white, to go on Freedom Rides.
Daniel Rubin, member of the CPUSA national board
The Bush administration and its allies, including the mayor of New York, today represent the same social interests as the McCarthyites did in the 1940s and ’50s. If Ben Davis were alive today, he’d be a part of the electoral struggle to defeat them.
Elena Mora, N.Y. state chair of the Communist Party