Charlene Mitchell

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Charlene Alexander Mitchell
Born(1930-06-08)June 8, 1930
DiedDecember 14, 2022(2022-12-14) (aged 92)

Charlene Alexander Mitchell (June 8, 1930 – December 14, 2022) was an American international socialist, feminist, labor and civil rights activist. In 1968, she became the first Black woman candidate for President of the United States.[1][2]

In the 1970s, she became a leader in efforts to support the defense of Angela Davis, founded the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, campaigned on behalf of the defenses of Joan Little and the Wilmington Ten, and focused her activism on anti-apartheid efforts.

Mitchell joined the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) at age 16, and is considered to be one of the most influential leaders in the party in the late 1950s and the 1960s.[3][4] After leaving the party, she became a leader of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) in the 1990s.

Early life and education[edit]

Born Charlene Alexander in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 8, 1930,[5] she moved with her parents and seven siblings to Chicago at the age of nine.[1][3] In the early 20th century, her parents had moved north during the Great Migration of Black Southerners.[1] During the Second World War, she grew up in the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses in the Near North Side of Chicago and took classes at the Moody Bible Institute.[3][6]

She joined the Communist Party USA at age 16, and had joined the youth branch, the American Youth for Democracy, when she was 13.[1] Early activism by Mitchell in the 1940s included participation in a successful sit-in protest against segregated seating in a theater, with white students sitting in the "colored only" balcony and Black students sitting in the "whites only" section below.[1][7]

In Chicago, her father was a precinct captain for Rep. William L. Dawson, a Pullman porter, a hod carrier, and a labor activist.[1][7] Mitchell attended Herzl Junior College in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles in the 1955.[1][3]

Political career[edit]

1968 running mate Michael Zagarell

In 1958, Mitchell joined the national committee of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).[1] Her 1959 testimony before a panel of the House Un-American Activities Committee received attention due to her refusals to answer questions and her challenge to the authority of the committee.[2] In Los Angeles, she founded the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-Black chapter of CPUSA, in the 1960s.[1][5] Angela Davis worked with Mitchell and the Che-Lumumba Club, including to organize protests.[1][8] Mitchell's brother and sister-in-law Franklin and Kendra Alexander were also active in the Che-Lumumba Club.[9] Mitchell moved to New York City in 1968.[1][2]

As a third-party candidate in the election of 1968, Mitchell was the first Black woman to run for President of the United States.[1][10] She represented the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and her running mate was Michael "Mike" Zagarell, the National Youth Director of the party.[11] They were entered on the ballots in only four states and received about 1000 votes.[1][2]

The Fight to Free Angela Davis by Charlene Mitchell (1972)

After Davis was arrested in 1970, Mitchell led efforts to support her defense.[1][2] Mitchell worked with Kendra and Franklin Alexander on the campaign to free Davis, including as an investigator for the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and with a small team and Davis to coordinate political and legal defenses.[12][9]

According to Sol Stern at the New York Times in 1971, it was "the best-organized, most broad-based defense effort in the recent history of radical political trials--more potent that that afforded to any of the Panther leaders or the Chicago Seven."[9] Davis later described the effort as "one of the most impressive mass international campaigns of the 20th century" and said about Mitchell, "I have never known anyone as consistent in her values, as collective in her outlook on life, as firm in her trajectory as a freedom fighter."[7]

After the acquittal of Davis in 1972, Mitchell founded the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, with a focus on police brutality and the legal system.[1][2] Mitchell also campaigned on behalf of the defenses of Joan Little and the Wilmington Ten.[5][2]

Mitchell began to focus on anti-apartheid efforts in the 1970s, and visited Nelson Mandela in South Africa after his release from prison in 1990.[2] Benjamin Chavis has said that in the 1980s, James Baldwin referred to Mitchell as "the Joan of Arc of Harlem" because "she dares to utter unspeakable truth to power."[2]

In 1988, Mitchell ran as an Independent Progressive for U.S. Senator from New York against the incumbent Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He was re-elected by a large margin. Mitchell received 0.2% of the vote to finish fourth out of seven candidates, ahead of the candidates from the Workers World Party, Libertarian Party and Socialist Workers Party.[13]

After the death of prominent CPUSA member Henry Winston in 1986, Mitchell and other party members questioned the direction of the party.[2] They planned a reform movement and matters came to a head at a convention in December 1991. Many who signed a letter urging reform were purged by Gus Hall from the CPUSA's national committee, including Mitchell, Angela Davis, Kendra Alexander and other African-American leaders.[14] Others who left the Party then included Herbert Aptheker, Gil Green, and Michael Myerson.[15]

Mitchell became an elected leader of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) in the 1990s.[5] In 1993, Mitchell attended the Foro de São Paulo in Havana as an observer from the CCDS.[16] In 1994 she served as an official international observer of the first democratic elections in post-apartheid South Africa,[17] where Nelson Mandela was elected president.[2]

Personal life and death[edit]

Mitchell married Bill Mitchell in 1950 and they had a son in 1951.[5] After their divorce, she married Michael Welch and they later divorced.[1] In 2007, she experienced a stroke.[5][1] Mitchell died in New York City’s Amsterdam Nursing Home on December 14, 2022, at the age of 92.[18]

Selected works[edit]

  • The Fight to Free Angela Davis: Its Importance for the Working Class, New York: New Outlook Publishers (1972), ISBN 0-87898-085-7
  • Equality: its time has come, New York: New Outlook Publishers (1985)

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Risen, Clay (December 23, 2022). "Charlene Mitchell, 92, Dies; First Black Woman to Run for President". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 December 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Murphy, Brian (December 24, 2022). "Charlene Mitchell, first Black woman in presidential race, dies at 92". The Washington Post. Retrieved 24 December 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism, Duke University Press, 2011, p. 140.
  4. ^ West, E. James (September 24, 2019). "A Black Woman Communist Candidate: Charlene Mitchell's 1968 Presidential Campaign". African American Intellectual History Society. Retrieved 25 December 2022.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Boyd, Herb (December 22, 2022). "Charlene Mitchell, activist and presidential candidate, dies at 92". Philadelphia Tribune. Retrieved 24 December 2022.
  6. ^ Gagarin, Nicholas (November 5, 1968). "Charlene Mitchell: Silhouette". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 25 December 2022.
  7. ^ a b c "Black Women and the Radical Tradition Conference 2009: Angela Davis Tribute to Charlene Mitchell, Introductory comments by Gena Rae Mcneil". Vimeo. Graduate Center for Worker Education of Brooklyn College. 2009. Retrieved 24 December 2022. age 7 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Charlene's mother's illness necessitated that Charlene take several busses for one of the scariest trips on which she had ever been thus far in her life. She was on her way to the Federal jail to visit her labor-activist father. After a long ride with several transfers, she arrived so late at the Federal jail that the guards deemed it too late for her to really have any kind of visit. Technically, at the time of her arrival, visiting hours were not over, and Charlene at age 7 argued the point, protesting the guards' decision which, if implemented, would have prevented her from visiting her father and delivering a basket of items her mother had entrusted to her for him. Through what she remembers and describes as "hollering and demanding", she managed to persuade the armed guard to let her go up in the jail elevator at the very end of visiting hours then, and after she "hollered" some more, she persuaded the guard that visiting her father with the glass between them was completely unacceptable, and made it impossible for her to deliver the basket. The guards held the basket and let her go into the room where there were table visits permitted providing visitors remained on their side of the table. As soon as Charlene's father came out and sat down, Charlene jumped around the table and sat on his lap. The guards threw up their hands, but she was not finished yet. She kept talking to them about the basket, telling the guards they could not go away with her father's basket, until they finally agreed that her father could see the basket before they took it back for inspection. In their very next conversation Charlene's mother and father had, Charlene's father told her mother 'never let Charlene come again'. It was too hard on him and the jailers would never get over it.
  8. ^ Herriott, Arianna (February 4, 2020). "Angela Davis: activist, educator, and scholar". WTKR. Retrieved 24 December 2022.
  9. ^ a b c Stern, Sol (June 27, 1971). "The Campaign to Free Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 December 2022.
  10. ^ Nittle, Nadra Kareem (February 10, 2021). "Black Women Who Have Run for President". HISTORY. Retrieved 14 May 2021.
  11. ^ "Mitchell, Charlene (CPUSA)". Texas Scholar Works. University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 25 December 2022.
  12. ^ Aptheker, Bettina (1997). The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis. Cornell University Press. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-8014-7014-1. Retrieved 24 December 2022.
  13. ^ New York Senate race details at
  14. ^ Erwin Marquit and Doris G. Marquit, "Party survives, but as a shell" Archived March 11, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Minnesota Daily, February 19, 1992. Accessed February 12, 2006.
  15. ^ "Crisis in the CPUSA: Interview with Charlene Mitchell". University of the Western Cape. 1993. Retrieved 3 January 2021.
  16. ^ James, Joy, Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals (Routledge, 1997).
  17. ^ William Minter, Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr. (eds), "'Faces Filled with Joy': The 1994 South African Election", from No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 2007.
  18. ^ "Charlene Mitchell, Leader of the Campaign To Free Angela Davis". Portside. 18 December 2022. Retrieved 19 December 2022.

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by Communist Party USA Presidential candidate
1968 (lost)
Succeeded by