Benjamin J. Davis

Benjamin J. Davis

Benjamin J. "Ben" Davis (September 8, 1903 - August 22, 1964), was an African-American who was elected to the city council of New York City, representing Harlem, in 1943. He faced increasing opposition from outside Harlem after the end of World War II, and in 1951, he was convicted of violating the Smith Act and sentenced to five years in prison.

Davis lived in Dawson, Georgia as a young man, ["Communist Councilman From Harlem," Benjamin J. Davis, 1969, p.21] attended the high school program of Morehouse College in Atlanta, ["Communist Councilman From Harlem," Benjamin J. Davis, 1969, p.32] then pursued higher education at Amherst College, where he secured his B.A. degree. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1930 and worked briefly as a journalist ["Communist Councilman From Harlem," Benjamin J. Davis, 1969, p.44] before starting a law practice in Atlanta. ["Communist Councilman From Harlem," Benjamin J. Davis, 1969, p.48]

Davis became radicalized while representing Angelo Herndon, a 19 year old black communist who had been charged with violating a Georgia law against "attempting to incite insurrection" (Davis says that he had been trying to organize a farm workers' union). During the trial, Davis faced angry, racist opposition from the judge and public, and became impressed with the rhetoric and bravery of Herndon and his colleagues. Upon concluding arguments, he joined the communist party himself. ["Communist Councilman From Harlem," Benjamin J. Davis, 1969, chapter four] Herndon was convicted and sentenced to 18-20 years in jail, though he was soon freed when Georgia's insurrection law was declared unconstitutional.

Benjamin Davis moved to Harlem in 1935, where he worked as editor of the "Negro Liberator," and later of the Communist Party's newspaper, the "Daily Worker." In 1943, he was elected under the then-used system of proportional representation to fill a city council seat being vacated by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was leaving the council in order to run for congress.

Davis was reelected twice to his city council seat but, in 1949, he was expelled from the council upon being convicted under the Smith Act of conspiring to overthrow the federal government. His eviction from the council was required under state law; his former colleagues then passed a resolution celebrating his ouster. [ [ The Politicker, "It Could Have Been Worse"] ] He appealed the conviction for two years, without success.

After three years and four months in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Davis was freed. [ Spartacus Educational] ] In the subsequent years, Davis engaged in a speaking tour of college campuses and remained politically active, promoting an agenda of civil rights and economic populism. He was close to communist party chairman William Z. Foster, and a staunch supporter of Stalin, publicly defending the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

Davis was charged with violating the Internal Security Act in 1962. He died before the case came to trial. Davis was running for State Senate on the Peoples Party ticket at the time of his death from lung cancer in 1964. ["Communist Councilman From Harlem," Benjamin J. Davis, 1969, photo page 6]

Cquote2|I am proud to be an American, proud to be a Negro, and proud to be a Communist! And there is no contradiction between the three. I am proud to be an American because I have an abiding confidence in the creative capacity of the American people to set our country right in all respects and keep it so, and to move it to higher levels of happiness and peace.

- Benjamin Davis, 1962

While in prison, Davis had written notes for a memoir. These were confiscated by prison authorities and not released until after his death. The notes were compiled into a quasi-autobiography under the title "Communist Councilman From Harlem." ["Communist Councilman From Harlem," Benjamin J. Davis, 1969]


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