Charlene Alexander Mitchell (born c. 1930) is an African-American international socialist, feminist, labor and civil rights activist. Formerly a member of the Communist Party USA, which she joined at 16 – emerging as one of the most influential leaders in the party from the late 1950s to the 1980s – she now belongs to the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS).
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Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Charlene Alexander (Mitchell) migrated with her family to Chicago. During the Second World War she grew up in the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses and took classes in the Moody Bible Institute.
At the conference on Black Women And The Radical Tradition held "in tribute to Charlene Mitchell" at Brooklyn College Graduate Center in 2009, Genna Rae McNeil recounted the origins of Mitchell's involvement in political activism. "I probably have been trying to be an organizer most of my life," Mitchell observed to McNeil in 1995. McNeil went on to relate that:
...at 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.
Mitchell's early civil rights activism included organizing, in 1943 at the age of 13, both black and white teenagers in pickets and other actions at the Windsor Theatre in Chicago, which segregated black customers in the balcony, and also at a nearby segregated bowling alley. The lack of success of picketing and leafletting led the young Charlene to organize another action for her group of activists, who took the name American Youth for Democracy. They held a sit-in at the Windsor, with white members going up to the "colored only" balcony while black members took their seats in the auditorium's "whites only" section below.
So began a long career of unrelenting activism and persistence, perhaps most famously illustrated in the success of the campaign to free Angela Davis, which she led alongside Kendra Alexander and Franklin Alexander.
Speaking at the same event as McNeil, Davis described the effort to free her, spearheaded by Mitchell, as "one of the most impressive mass international campaigns of the 20th century." Davis stressed that the relative lack of celebrity Mitchell enjoys today in comparison to some contemporaries and later generations of women's movement and civil rights leaders involved in the same struggles is no indication of the impact her work has had. "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." At another tribute to Mitchell, at the CCDS Convention in Chicago, CCDS militant and leader Mildred Williamson said of Mitchell: "If it hadn't been for Charlene opening my eyes to many things and encouraging me, I wouldn't be here today, nor would I have been able to achieve many of the other things in my life."
In 1993, Mitchell attended the Foro de São Paulo in Havana as an observer from the CCDS. In 1994 she served as an official international observer of the first democratic elections in post-apartheid South Africa and was an observer at the congress of the South African Communist Party that year. Also in 1994, she visited Namibia as a guest of the mines and energy ministry. In recent years, she returned to Cuba for rehabilitation medical treatment following a stroke suffered in 2007.
Lisa Brock interviewed Mitchell in her home in Harlem in 2004. Among the topics raised were anti-colonialism, Pan-Africanism and the internationalism of the Communist Party USA:
BROCK: I want to turn now specifically to solidarity with Africa. And were you involved in solidarity activity with the growing anti-colonial movement in Africa, that sort of emerged after World War II in the late '40s and then sort of reached sort of a pinnacle in the '50s and '60s? Were you involved in any of that anti-colonial activity?
MITCHELL: Actually, in the '40s, no. The most I knew about Africa in the '40s, I guess, was the existence of the ANC. But no, I really didn't know much about it. But in the '50s, in the late '40s, in the '50s, already there was tremendous concern on the left in the United States, but particularly in the Communist Party. Not all the left agreed in terms of the importance of Africa. And I began to read a lot. But also, there was Alphaeus Hunton, whom I had come to know, and his interest, and his knowledge about Africa was—really showed deep. And it was at that time that Ghana was in the process of receiving its—or winning, not receiving, its independence. And Du Bois was already interested in what was going to happen there. The interesting thing about it, at that time, was the Freedom newspaper—Paul Robeson and Louis Burnham, and Du Bois was kind of part of it, but they were mainly the activists there. And that was where there was a tremendous bringing together of the struggles in Africa and those for liberation in the United States, of African Americans. So that was when I really began to see the importance of it.
And then in, I think it was 1957, I came to New York for a meeting, and I heard about a big demonstration that was going to be held in Washington, DC, and it was in support of the movements in Africa for liberation. And the speaker was Tom Mboya. And it was really interesting because we came back and the song that we were all—it was kind of a protest song when we were marching sometimes. It's "I want to be a Mau Mau just like Jomo Kenyatta," and it was kind of a more militant aspect of the youth movement and the peace movement and bringing it together. Because it wasn't taking place all over in the peace movement, or the youth movement, and we kind of saw the importance of that.
And then, of course, what was happening in Kenya at the time—and I hadn't thought about it until right now, and that is all of the blame for the terrible violence and how awful, people were being hatcheted to death, and so on, is the same as they're projecting what's going on in Iraq, with the beheadings and so on. All the blame, now, is on the people who are conducting this kind of terror, and not the people who brought earlier all the terror up on these people, in terms of just forbidding them any humanity whatsoever. So I really had not thought about that until now.
So, but that was kind of the beginning. And then, in 1960, when I went to London, one of the first people I went to meet with—well, I saw Claudia Jones, whom I had met earlier here in New York. Claudia was a member of the leading committees of the Communist Party and had been deported to London. So I went to visit her, and she took me to visit Yusuf Dadoo, who is an Indian member of the Communist Party and had been a member of the Indian Congress of South Africa. But by then he was a leader of the Communist Party and a leader in ANC, and at one point, I think the editor of the African Communist, which is a quarterly magazine that still comes out. And I remember being so impressed about his knowledge and his understanding of what actually was happening in Africa, and why South Africa was so important.
And immediately after that, I began to hear more and understand more a phrase that Henry Winston, who's the chairman of the Communist Party, used. He would say that Israel was the northern end opening of American imperialism, and South Africa was the southern opening for imperialism in South Africa—in the world. And I kind of would put that together with what I had learned from Dadoo, and it was so very—not just moving, I mean, it explained so much to me that as a teenager, I could not understand. I'm not even sure teenagers do today, that Africans did not all come from—either come from princesses and princes or they were slaves. I mean, there were workers, there were people who were farmers. They were people. And they fought for their freedom from day one. But we seem to see it only as a bunch of people who need help, and not that they have been of assistance to the whole world development, and that a lot of the wealth in the world has come from that, from those workers.
So to me, Africa opened its doors, to me, more as part of the movement and solidarity with us as we were with them. And I kind of always saw that as an equal thing, because I would learn so much from it.
Writer and CCDS militant Carl Bloice celebrated Mitchell's globe-embracing vision and work at the 2009 CCDS Convention: "I have a picture on my wall at home. It's of a hall full of Bulgarian communists, all smiling, and right in the middle is one Black woman, Charlene."
As a third-party candidate in the Election of 1968, Mitchell was the first African-American woman to run for President of the United States. She represented the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and her running mate was Michael "Mike" Zagarell, the National Youth Director of the party. At 23 years of age, he was younger than the constitutionally required age of 35 to hold office. They were entered on the ballots in only two states. Mitchell's brother and sister-in-law Franklin and Kendra Alexander had also been active in the party.
While Mitchell had long been a Communist Party member, she and other reform-minded people wanted changes. African Americans were unhappy with the leadership of Gus Hall, as they believed he failed to recognize the international Communist Party members' responsibility for problems in the Soviet Union and other European nations. 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. As of 2006, Mitchell was active in the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), an independent offshoot of the Communist Party.
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