Davis, Benjamin Jefferson, Jr.
September 8, 1903 to August 22, 1964
Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., was chairman of the New York State district of the Communist Party and an acquaintance of Martin Luther King, Jr. King and Davis were both from prominent Atlanta families, and despite their ideological differences, their relationship was characterized by a great degree of mutual respect. In a letter to Davis, King once wrote: “Your words are always encouraging, and although we do not share the political views I find a deeper unity of spirit with you that is after all the important thing” (Papers 5:442).
Davis was born in Dawson, Georgia, on 8 September 1903, to Benjamin Davis, Sr., and Jimmie W. Porter. In 1909 the family moved to Atlanta, where Benjamin, Sr., became active in Republican Party politics and founded the Atlanta Independent, a weekly African American newspaper. A graduate of Amherst College, Davis, Jr., earned a degree from Harvard Law School in 1929 and began practicing law three years later in Atlanta. The young attorney gained international attention when he was hired in 1932 by the International Labor Defense to represent Angelo Herndon, a young African American Communist. Defending Herndon not only brought Davis great renown, but also intensified his own Communist sensibilities. In 1935, he left the legal profession in Atlanta for New York City where he become the editor of the American Communist Party’s periodicals the Negro Liberator and, later, the Daily Worker. In New York he became active in municipal politics, succeeding Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., as Harlem’s representative on the New York City Council in 1943. Davis encountered legal problems of his own surrounding his involvement with the Communist Party and, in 1949, lost his bid for a third term on the City Council. He was convicted later that year for violating the Smith Act, a 1940 law that criminalized any act that was seen as advocating an overthrow of the United States government, and spent five years in a federal penitentiary.
Although Davis remained a member of the Communist Party until his death in 1964, throughout the 1950s he developed an increasing admiration for King. Following King’s stabbing in 1958 by Izola Curry, Davis donated blood at Harlem Hospital to help the injured leader, writing in a letter: “Had the blood been needed it was there. Just as blood knows no race or color—it knows no politics.” In that same letter Davis called support for King “a duty” and wished the minister “the best of everything and great success in your work” (Davis, January 1959). King later wrote to Davis that “a friend like yourself … gives me renewed courage and vigor to carry on” (Papers 5:443).
In 1962, Davis was again indicted for his association with the Communist Party, this time for violating the McCarran Internal Security Act by failing to register the Communist Party as an agent of the Soviet Union. Davis remained committed to his political ideology and died in 1964 while awaiting trial for these charges.
Davis to King, January 1959, MLKP-MBU.
King to Davis, 23 April 1960, in Papers 5:442–443.