Communist NY Councilman Ben Davis and the Meaning of Nonviolence

As we continue to see protests emerge nationwide in opposition to oppression promoted by the state and its co-conspirators in big business, we need to better understand the lessons of the Smith Act trials and the life of Benjamin Davis.


In certain activism circles these days, one is destined to become engaged in a lively discussion about the validity and meaning of violent opposition to reactionaries that congregate under various banners of the alt-right. These formations, proffering a refurbished brand of scientific racism that was supposed dormant (or at least marginalized by responsible Republican political thinkers), are determined to not only advance their repulsive ideology, they aim to recruit converts to the cause with a sustained evangelism that is both frightening and effective.

The matter of violence as opposed to nonviolence is a longtime debate, sometimes white-hot, that fails in its articulation to manifest some key historical insights that have been consigned to Trotsky’s historical dustbin named Stalinism. Nonviolent civil disobedience certainly predates the twentieth century and can be traced back to Gandhi and Tolstoy before him. But its most well-known iteration is the career and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is furthermore unfortunately quite common for reactionaries to browbeat Black activists with proclamations that “Dr. King would have…” or “…would have not…” While my intention here is to engage in neither, I would suggest that consideration of King’s historical context as well as antecedents provides guidance and wisdom rather than endorsement nor condemnation.

Two projects that came before Dr. King were the efforts of Socialist A. Philip Randolph to organize a wartime March on Washington and the Communist Party USA organization efforts that placed sustained emphasis on the particularities of the African American freedom struggle. Both of these groupings feuded openly with each other in a counterproductive fashion and mutual recriminations lasting unto today might be possible were parties so inclined (and may Almighty God truly help us all if they were).

This division unfortunately was a significant contribution to the postwar witch-hunts colloquially known as McCarthyism. As a result, the entire political Left suffered the consequences. The vacuum perhaps could be said to have set the Civil Rights struggle back by a decade.

Sketch of Benjamin Davis by Hugo Gellert/Public Domain

Of particular merit for consideration in these contexts is the Smith Act trials of Communists that extended from the later 1940s into the 1960s. Among those who were prosecuted and jailed was Harlem City Councilor Benjamin Davis, Jr., whose ascension to such a municipal office has been cited by Dr. Gerald Horne as the augury of an impending break into mainstream electoral politics for a viable progressive-left third party.

Published by International Publishers/Fair Use

The Smith Act trial prosecutors charged that the Communists were engaging in a political conspiracy to violently overthrow the federal government. Such acts of sedition were impossible to demonstrate owing to their nonexistence but this did not stop the trials. The prosecution therefore constructed their case not on demonstrable actions but selections from Communist publications that could have been construed, in the minds of those who desired to see things that way, as promoting seditious action. What this meant in practical terms was creating a portfolio of highly selective quotations from Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin that was cut-and-pasted together in a haphazard fashion.

This is important to comprehend. The state tried and jailed Communists on the charge of planning a violent overthrow of the federal government despite the fact they had never planned such and had always opposed violence in their ranks! Furthermore, many people were sent to jail or forced to escape into the underground so to avoid incarceration on account of what we can only call guilt-by-association!

Benjamin J. Davis NYWTS
Robert Thompson and Davis surrounded by pickets as they leave the Federal Courthouse in New York City / World Telegram & Sun photo by C.M. Stieglitz, Library of Congress Collections, Public Domain

The following excerpts from Dr. Horne’s excellent biography, Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party, are particularly noteworthy:

Hence, the support enjoyed by Davis and the party after the Red Scare was only a shadow of what it had been before that time. Yet fresh in the minds of J. Edgar Hoover and his ilk was the knowledge that Davis and the party only recently had enjoyed no small amount of support among blacks. They also knew that people like Davis had relationships of various sorts with figures like Adam Powell, Martin Luther King, and Jack O’Dell and that blacks were not as favorable toward the Red Scare as were others. The FBI feared that as democratic space was being opened, a comeback by Communists would be triggered. This helps to explain why repressive anti-Communist measures did not necessarily decrease as the party was shrinking. Moreover, such measures were convenient handcuffs for the civil rights movement as well…

One stoolpigeon said that despite an estimated ten-year decline from eighty thousand to twenty thousand, this still putatively important party was more dangerous in 1958 than in early 1948 since now “they [have] boiled their ranks down to the hard core.” Davis was considered the hardest of the hard core, yet he still maintained contact with the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and Dr. Martin Luther King during this pivotal year…

Given the fact that they were surveilled so incessantly, it was probably a tactical mistake for Davis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to correspond. But they did.

This is an important factor to comprehend when we talk about nonviolence and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Those who engage in arguments about the ethics and justifications (or lack thereof) about violence only indicate they are missing the whole point to begin with.

King was an admiring correspondent of Ben Davis, a Black civil rights activist and politician who had been jailed for false allegations of fomenting violence. He would have been mistaken not to to publicly profess nonviolence as a rhetorical strategy to stave off the entrapment of CointelPro operations that sunk Davis and ultimately succeeded in killing King himself.

Nonviolence was never solely a matter of moral or ethical debate primarily, the major concern for the postwar Civil Rights movement was avoiding the pitfalls that had sunk similar efforts a decade earlier.

As we continue to see protest movements emerge nationwide in opposition to various forms of oppression promoted by the state and its co-conspirators in big business, such as war, fracking/fossil fuel infrastructure expansion, healthcare access, and police brutality, we need to conceptually understand the lessons of the Smith Act trials and how those moments should be informing the security culture of our activism circles. Regardless of what an activist collective decides to do for a given action, Benjamin Davis’s conviction is an important benchmark of how far the state is willing to go so to repress the struggle for Black liberation.

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