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Frank Marshall Davis: Obama’s ‘Communist mentor’?

Barack Obama, second row right, is shown in a 1978 senior yearbook photo at the Punahou School in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Punahoe Schools, File)

Megyn Kelly: A lot of liberals don’t believe in American exceptionalism, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love America.

Rudolph Giuliani: Well, that I don’t feel it. I don’t feel it. I don’t feel this love of America. I think this man (Obama) was — when I talked about his background, I’m talking about a man who grew up under the influence of Frank Marshall Davis, who was a member of the Communist Party who he refers to over and over in his book, who was a tremendous critic of the United States.

Kelly: But when you say he wasn’t raised to love America, I mean, he was raised in part by his grandparents, his – his grandfather served in World War II, his grandmother worked in a munitions plant to help the nation during World War II. I mean, to suggest he was raised by people who don’t love America, who don’t — didn’t help him learn to love America.

Giuliani: Well, his — his grandfather introduced him to Frank Marshall Davis, who was a Communist.

–Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Fox News interview with Megyn Kelly, Feb. 20, 2015

President Obama met Frank Marshall Davis four decades ago and saw Davis 10 to 15 times as a teenager. Yet the Obama-Davis relationship continues to be a concern among some politicians, as portrayed most recently by Giuliani during his Tour de President Obama Doesn’t Love America. Readers of The Fact Checker wanted to know if Giuliani’s comments were accurate.

So we reached out to Cliff Kincaid, president of America’s Survival, a group that seeks to expose Communist and Marxist influences. It is research from Kincaid and a few others that has shaped the opinion of critics who believe Obama adopted radical, socialist ideologies under Davis’s mentorship. Davis was a journalist and activist who was associated with the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s.

We interviewed Kincaid at the Conservative Political Action Conference. When The Fact Checker arrived, Kincaid had been waiting with four of his peers, stacks of documents and a video camera pointed at an empty seat saved for us.

“The Frank in Obama’s book, ‘Dreams from My Father,’ is Frank Marshall Davis,” Kincaid said. “You don’t dispute that.”

“It has been admitted,” he continued, “except that here we are, to be honest with you, seven years after we broke this story. … The Washington Post has not reported the facts about Obama’s relationship with Frank Marshall Davis. That’s why I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity so you can hear directly from us and see the material we have.”

He and his peers do not outwardly label Obama a Communist, but believe Communist influences have been played down by the media. Obama has shown to be an ineffective Communist, if he were one. He has failed to unravel the capitalist system over the past six years that he has held the most powerful position in the world — though, as Obama says, “interesting things happen in the fourth quarter.”

So we decided to take a definitive look at Davis’s Communist Party activities and his relationship with Obama, based on competing research by those who have spent years trying to posthumously vindicate or indict Davis.

What was Frank Marshall Davis’s Communist influence on Obama?

The Facts: The Case Against Davis

Davis was born in Kansas in 1905. His encounters with racism and poverty throughout childhood inspired his life-long quest for racial and economic equality. He lived and worked in Chicago for most of his early adulthood, then moved to Hawaii, where he died in 1987.

He was a prolific poet and political columnist. He associated with other black-rights activists and labor unions and decried Jim Crow segregation laws in his columns.

His writings caught the attention of the FBI, which began tracking him in the 1930s, according to FBI records that Kincaid obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI was concerned with his role as executive editor of the Associated Negro Press, through which agents believed he was spreading Communist propaganda to the outlet’s members.

Informants told the FBI that Davis was a member of the party and organized its marches. The FBI record of Davis contains what is purported to be his Communist Party identification number: #47544. (The number was obtained from a “highly confidential source,” the files show.) The House Committee on Un-American Activities was well aware of Davis by the late 1940s. Davis’s last identification as a Communist Party member was in 1952, and he stopped being active with the Hawaii Civil Rights Congress in 1956, the file says. When Davis took the Fifth Amendment in front of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1956, agents were suspicious.

So the FBI continued to track him into the 1960s and did not officially remove him from the Security Index until 1963.

Davis had an interest in photography. In Hawaii, he took pictures of shorelines, apparently not photographing any particular objects, according to an FBI informant. That implies he might have been taking photos for espionage, to send to Soviet leaders to target Hawaii as a strategic territory, said Kincaid and Trevor Loudon, a libertarian activist who also researches this topic.

No other person can claim the title of Obama “mentor” than Davis, wrote Paul Kengor in “The Communist,” his book about Davis and Obama. “Frank is a lasting, permanent influence, an integral part of Obama’s sojourn,” he wrote.

Obama’s grandfather introduced him to Davis, whom Obama took to as a father-like figure, Kengor wrote. Kengor quotes passages from “Dreams from My Father” of their conversations on social justice, race relations and limitations of white tolerance.

Obama sat around listening to stories as his grandfather and Davis drank, and “it would be the height of gullibility to assume that (Davis), during those long evenings of talk and drink, never taught any politics to the wide-eyed Obama, or ruminated aloud with no effect whatsoever on the impressionable young man in the room — brought there (by a leftist grandfather) to be mentored in the first place,” Kengor wrote.

Obama sought advice from Davis as a college freshman — the last known meeting between the two. As Obama became a community organizer in college and later grappled with the challenges of race and poverty in Chicago, he visualized Davis and asked, “What would Frank do? What would Frank think?” Kengor wrote. Obama does refer to Davis several times in his book when listing people who influenced his understanding of his black identity.

The use of the word “change” during Obama’s first campaign for president hearkens Davis’s desire for change, Kengor wrote.

Why do Kincaid and others believe that the relationship with Davis shaped Obama more than, say, his own experiences and others he met throughout his life? Why does it matter that he met Davis as a teen? It’s that Davis was a “hard-core member” of the Communist Party and hated America and instilled those thoughts in Obama, Kincaid said. Obama also has gone on to surround himself with others with radical left views, Kincaid said.

“There are millions of black people who had just as bad an experience as him [Davis] who didn’t become anti-American Marxists. That’s the key point, isn’t it?” Loudon said.

The Facts: The Case For Davis

Davis’s memoir, “Livin’ the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet,” shows the evolution of his political views on segregation and economic inequality. He worked low-wage jobs until he started his career as a news reporter, covering politics and crime in Chicago and Atlanta. He became a political columnist for the Chicago Star, which had Marxist-Lenninist leanings and pro-labor views. Writings in his column, “Frank-ly Speaking,” showed he developed class-based ideologies that linked racism with classicism and fascism.

Davis never identifies himself as a Communist Party member in “Livin’ the Blues.” But he describes working with members, as long as they helped him achieve his goals. He had memberships, endorsements or affiliations with more than a dozen leftist groups, including the Chicago Civil Liberties Committee, CIO unions and the National Committee to Combat Anti-Semitism.

“I worked with all kinds of groups,” Davis wrote, “I made no distinction between those labeled Communist, Socialist or merely liberal. My sole criterion was this: Are you with me in my determination to wipe out white supremacy? Because I had some smattering of prestige as a writer and wielded some influence as an opinion maker in the black press at large, my active participation was welcomed.”

He was aware his associations had caught the attention of the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was amused by the FBI’s surveillance and was proud of it: “I would accept any resultant citation [by FBI or the committee] as an honor, for it would indicate I was beginning to upset the white power structure.”

When an FBI agent eventually interviewed him in Hawaii, Davis denied party membership. He wrote: “When they could find no evidence I was plotting to overthrow the government by force and violence, the Hoover gestapo turned to other tactics. … I owe the FBI an apology for causing them a needless waste of so much energy on me.”

Davis was a closet Communist at best, said John Edgar Tidwell, a University of Kansas professor who studies Davis’s writings. He was among many black intellectuals at the time who were exploring ways to dismantle Jim Crow laws and were attracted to groups that embraced social equality, redistribution of wealth and power, and integration, Tidwell said.

“He was not out there on the front lines carrying pickets and signs,” Tidwell said. “He wasn’t trying to overthrow the government at all. What he was seeking to do was intellectually find a way by which African Americans could be included into the mainstream of American life and culture.”

It is important to remember the U.S. political climate during the late 1930s through the early 1950s. The House Un-American Activities Committee and FBI were quick to label people and organizations with dissenting views as Communist. They were especially suspicious of people with pro-labor and civil-rights views, said Chris Brick, editor of George Washington University’s Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. Brick has studied the thousands of pages of FBI files on Eleanor Roosevelt, under suspicion for her political activism and her criticism of the House committee.

Davis and his experiences made an impression on Obama, as shown in “Dreams from My Father.” Davis “made the young man feel something deep and disorienting” about his identity, wrote David Remnick in “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.” Obama’s anecdotes show he was intrigued by Davis’s experiences and insight. But the relationship was “neither constant nor lasting, certainly of no great ideological importance,” Remnick wrote.

Davis’s son, Mark, said he did not know his father had been involved with the Communist Party or that he had met Obama until he read about it years after his father died. So if Frank had had a father-son type of relationship with Obama, it is curious that Mark would never have heard about it.

“When I was growing up, I knew that my father had some radical history. But I did not know that he had joined the Communist Party,” Mark Davis said in a phone interview. “He did not in any respect try to indoctrinate me into any collectivist mindset.” And, he said, he doesn’t believe there was any indoctrination by osmosis for Obama.

The Pinocchio Test

It has been seven years since this assertion surfaced, and it continues to be perpetuated. Davis was indeed associated with the Communist Party, and the FBI identified him as a member. He was affiliated with more than a dozen other groups that were open to his views on social and racial inequality. He repeatedly showed his bitterness toward Jim Crow laws and wanted African Americans to have constitutional rights. He was an activist, but there is no evidence that Davis was a hard-core Communist who spied for Soviet leaders. He was critical of American society, but not America as a country.

Davis made an impression on Obama, as shown in his memoir. Obama mentions Davis several times in “Dreams from My Father” as someone who influenced his understanding of his black identity. But there is no evidence Obama was “raised” by Davis, or that Davis remained a close Communist mentor who advised him throughout his life. We carefully considered the facts underlying this assertion, and the evidence is slim. We may never definitively know one way or another, but it is time to put it to rest. (Update: Paul Kengor, author of “The Communist,” wrote a lengthy rebuttal of this fact check for The American Thinker.)

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