Celebrating the Leadership and Comradeship of Charlene Mitchell
Tributes to Charlene Mitchell: Organizer and Strategist for Freedom and Justice (New York, Committees of Correspondence Education Fund, 2023)
Crediting Mitchell with transforming the lives of people across the United States and “literally all over the world,” Davis pointed out that whether she was “out front” or doing “that invisible organizing work,” Mitchell was “totally satisfied to see the fruits of her labor unfold as they do without necessarily being singled out for her accomplishments.”
Thanks to Davis, and historians Genna Rae McNeil and Erik McDuffie, Mitchell was not completely overlooked when she passed away in December of 2022, at the age of 92. “Black Lives Matter and modern Black feminism stand on the shoulders of Charlene Mitchell,” McDuffie stated in a New York Times obituary that traced the roots of those contemporary movements to the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which Mitchell initiated to defend Davis and other Black radicals from persecution in the 1970s.
Further evidence of that influence is provided by Tributes to Charlene Mitchell: Organizer and Strategist for Freedom and Justice. Published by the Committees of Correspondence Education Fund, the volume contains statements from activists ranging from political prisoners including Davis, Ben Chavis and Frank Chapman to labor leaders like Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Coraminita Mahr; U.S. based scholars Lisa Brock, Bettina Aptheker, and Michael Honey, to South African radicals Chris Matlhako and Raymond Suttner.
Tellingly, the tributes emphasize Mitchell’s personal warmth and interest in individual lives as much as her tremendous skill as an organizer and advocate. “What I have most appreciated over these years is her amazing ability to discover ethical connections between the political and the personal, the global and the local,” Davis writes; “I don’t think I have ever known someone as consistent in her values, as collective in her outlook on life, as firm in her trajectory as a freedom fighter.” California activist Jack Kurzweil writes, simply, “Charlene was the only person in my life who could phone me, tell me what to do, and have me do it right away.”
Born in Cincinnati during the Great Depression, Mitchell saw from an early age how the criminal legal system targeted Black people for their political beliefs as well as their race and poverty. At the 2009 tribute, Genna Rae McNeil recounted one of Mitchell’s earliest memories of visiting her father, a Pullman Porter and laborer who was jailed for union organizing after moving the family to Chicago. At the age of 13, she joined the Communist-affiliated American Youth for Democracy and led a protest that ended racial segregation at a local theater. Inspired by Communists’ opposition to racism and economic exploitation, she joined the party in 1946, when its membership peaked at 75,000, only to be forced underground to avoid arrest as government repression and disillusionment with the Soviet Union depleted its ranks in the 1950s.
Mitchell’s attention to the intersections between race, class and imperialism helped renew the Communist movement among young radicals in the 1960s. Moving to Los Angeles, she established a Black chapter of the party named for Argentine and Congolese revolutionaries, Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba, and travelled widely to establish ties between the US party and anti-colonial activists in Africa and Latin America. She ran for President on the Communist ticket in 1968, on a platform of peace in Vietnam, racial equality, and economic justice for all.
She received barely a thousand votes but drew far more attention to the party by leading Angela Davis’ defense. An assistant professor at the University of California, Davis was fired due to her membership in the Communist Party, and after protests secured her reinstatement, charged with providing weapons to a younger activist who killed a judge in a desperate attempt to free his older brother from prison. Placing the case in a broader context of a racially and economically biased criminal legal system, Mitchel stated; “Angela Davis struggles especially for the freedom of political prisoners, and the ending of a prison system of which a major aim is to punish people on the basis of their color and their class, a prison system that attempts to dehumanize rather than rehabilitate, a prison system that intensifies the inherent racism of U.S. capitalism.”
Building an international campaign that secured Davis’ acquittal in 1972, Mitchell established the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression to defend Black radicals against the rising backlash of the 1970s and 1980s. These included civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis, who was sentenced along with nine others to 29 years in prison on evidence later shown to have been fabricated; Assata Shakur, a Black Liberation Army militant who was imprisoned under conditions that the UN Commission on Human Rights called “totally unbefitting any prisoner;” and Joan Little, who was charged with murder for killing a guard who attempted to rape her in a jail cell. The National Alliance also supported activists targeted for their roles in the Puerto Rican independence movement and the American Indian Movement and played a central role in building international pressure to free Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa.
Extending Mitchell’s analysis of Angela Davis’ situation, the National Alliance asserted an expansive view of political repression as targeting not just ideological dissent but any act of rebellion against an unjust society. Genna Rae McNeil explains that Mitchell brought a systemic analysis to Joan Little’s defense, arguing that her actions could not be understood in isolation from her gender, poverty and restricted access to education and employment. Insisting on Little’s right to defend herself from sexual assault, McNeil explained, the campaign defined political prisoners as “people who were in prison as a direct result of their political beliefs and activities as well as people who were caught up in a web of political repression and therefore victimized by the system.”
Some will rightly ask how Mitchell developed such a powerful critique of the U.S. legal system while seemingly ignoring political repression in the Soviet Union. It should be noted that she became a Communist during the Second World War, when the U.S. government allied with the Soviets in a war against fascism. It may be that she adopted a similar view of international Communism as a powerful ally rather than an exact model for a just society. It also makes sense that she prioritized the struggle for freedom in her home country, where she and her family and friends faced persecution and exploitation, over those abroad. Significantly, the Communist Party was one of the few multiracial organizations on the left that did not fracture along racial lines in the late 1960s and 1970s.
But we should also recall that Mitchell initiated the National Alliance in an era when the United States was emerging as an uncontested global leader in human caging. By the end of the 20thcentury, incarceration rates in the United States surpassed those of the Soviet Union at the height of the Gulag and of South Africa under apartheid. Her analysis of race and class has grown even more pressing with the rise of mass incarceration.
Ultimately, Charlene Mitchell joined others who were committed to reforming communism in both at home and abroad. Frustrated by nostalgia among older communists for the industrial working class, she pushed the party to embrace the opportunities created by the rise of an increasingly female and multi-racial workforce in the service economy. When reports of Glasnost and Perestroika began to circulate within the U.S. Communist Party, she assembled those who favored open discussion and support for democratic reform in the Soviet bloc. That led to Mitchell’s exclusion, along with Davis and others from party leadership. The sidelining of such prominent Black leaders was particularly offensive to those committed to multiracial organizing, leading to the resignation of nearly a third of party members. Joining with other leftists, the dissidents formed the Committees of Correspondence to rebuild a democratic and non-partisan left.
I was lucky to have the chance to work with Charlene during that period on campaigns to support unions of housekeeping and farm workers and to fight cuts to food and housing assistance programs in North Carolina. I witnessed firsthand her tremendous skill as an organizer, which drew not only on decades of experience and sharp analysis but also on rich networks of friends and allies that she seemed to have in cities and small towns across the state. I also benefited from the warmth and comradeship that resonate throughout the memories shared in Tributes to Charlene Mitchell. Charlene welcomed me into her home, showed me around her neighborhood in Harlem, and even organized a shower for my first child.
As Angela Davis pointed out in her 2009 tribute to Charlene, it is not the personal recognition of heroic acts that matters as much as the historical memory of collective action and what it accomplished. Tributes to Charlene Mitchell provides critical material for that historical memory, rooted in the reminiscences of those who worked closely with her over many decades. They remind us that collective action requires careful analysis and persistent organization, but also personal connection and understanding. For that model, as well as her contributions to the struggle for a better world, we should hold dear the memory of Charlene Mitchell.
[William P. Jones is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota and author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.]