Benjamin Jefferson “Ben” Davis Jr., September 8, 1903 – August 22, 1964, was an African-American lawyer and communist 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 was convicted of violating the Smith Act and sentenced to five years in prison.
Benjamin J. Davis Jr. – known to his friends as “Ben” – was born September 8, 1903, in Dawson, Georgia. The family moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where Davis’s father “Big Ben” Davis established a weekly black newspaper, the Atlanta Independent, which was successful enough to allow for a comfortable middle-class upbringing for the family. The elder Benjamin Davis emerged as a prominent black political leader and served as a member of the Republican National Committee for the state of Georgia.
Davis attended the high school program of Morehouse College in Atlanta, then pursued higher education at Amherst College, earning his B.A. in 1925. Davis continued his education at Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1929. Davis worked briefly as a journalist before starting a law practice in Atlanta in 1932.
Davis became radicalized through his role as defense attorney in the 1933 trial of Angelo Herndon, a 19-year-old black Communist who had been charged with violating a Georgia law against “attempting to incite insurrection” over Herndon’s attempt to organize a farm workers’ union. Davis asked the International Juridical Association to review his brief. 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.
Herndon was convicted and sentenced to 18–20 years in jail, but was freed after April 26, 1937 when, by a 5-to-4 margin, the United States Supreme Court ruled Georgia’s Insurrection Law to be unconstitutional.
Benjamin Davis moved to Harlem in 1935, where he worked as editor of the Communist Party’s newspaper targeted to African-Americans, The Negro Liberator. He later moved on to become editor of the CPUSA‘s official English-language daily, 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 reëlected twice to his city council seat but, in 1949, he was expelled from the council upon being convicted of conspiring to overthrow the federal government under the Smith Act – a World War II-era charge that rested on Davis’s association with the Communist Party. His eviction from the council was required under state law; his former colleagues then passed a resolution celebrating his ouster. 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. 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. Davis’ 1962 speaking circuit drew crowds at schools such as Harvard, Columbia, Amherst, Oberlin and the University of Minnesota. The City College of New York – ironically, right in the New York council district he represented in the 1940s – barred Davis from speaking on its campus. After a student protest, Davis was able to speak on the street. 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 shortly before the case came to trial.
Ben Davis died of lung cancer in New York City on August 22, 1964. He was less than one month shy of his 61st birthday at the time of his death and was in the midst of a campaign for New York State Senate on the People’s Party ticket.
While in prison, Davis had written notes for a memoir. These were confiscated by prison authorities and not released until after his death when they were published under the title Communist Councilman From Harlem.
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