Rennie Davis, ‘Chicago Seven’ Antiwar Activist, Dies at 79

Rennie Davis, who lived out one of the more quixotic journeys of the 1960s generation when he went from leading opponent of the Vietnam War, as a convicted member of the Chicago Seven, to spokesman for a teenage Indian guru, died on Tuesday at his home in Longmont, Colo. He was 79.

His wife, Kirsten Liegmann, who announced the death on his Facebook page, said the cause was lymphoma, adding that a large tumor had been discovered only two weeks ago.

Smart, charismatic and a blur of energy and engagement, Mr. Davis was a leading figure of the antiwar movement. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, he joined the top ranks of the activist organization Students for a Democratic Society and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

In 1967, he and Tom Hayden, another S.D.S. leader, attended an international conference of student radicals in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia; traveled to Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam; and returned in time for the march on the Pentagon immortalized in Norman Mailer’s 1968 book “The Armies of the Night.”

That experience led to Chicago, where Mr. Davis helped organize a motley assemblage of antiwar activists, political radicals and the theatrical revolutionaries known as Yippies with the aim of descending on the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

A rally at Grant Park on Tuesday, Aug. 27, turned into a riot, with helmeted police clubbing thousands of demonstrators, including Mr. Davis, who was left bloodied, his head swathed in bandages.

A national commission later called the clash a police riot, but federal officials charged Mr. Davis and seven others with conspiracy and inciting to riot. They went from being called the Chicago Eight to the Chicago Seven after the case of one of them, the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, was severed from the others. (In the end, Mr. Seale was never tried.)

The Chicago Seven trial became a seminal moment of the ’60s — part legal drama, part political theater. Its story was told last year in the Aaron Sorkin film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

In 1970, after a tumultuous four-and-a-half-month trial, all seven defendants were acquitted of conspiracy, but Mr. Davis and four others — Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger and Mr. Hayden — were convicted of inciting to riot and sentenced to five years in prison. The verdicts were overturned on appeal, as were various contempt citations.

After that, Mr. Davis returned to antiwar activism, traveling again to Hanoi and helping to organize the 1971 May Day antiwar rally in Washington, which resulted in some 13,000 arrests.

Then, in 1973, he took what many thought to be a baffling turn: He became the chief American promoter for Guru Maharaj Ji, a 15-year-old Indian billed as a “perfect master,” who claimed millions of followers around the world.

Most of the rest of Mr. Davis’s career found him trying to blend the political radicalism of his 20s with an entrepreneurial pastiche of progressive or New Age agendas. The results played out like an improvisation on ’60s themes, leading to divided opinions about him.

Some admirers saw a lifelong commitment to a progressive vision taking new forms. Others, especially many of his old allies from the antiwar movement, lamented a life of great promise diverted to magical thinking and dubious causes.

Mr. Davis (seated, left) with four  fellow defendants in the Chicago Seven trial and Bob Lamb, who worked on their defense. Seated with Mr. Davis were Jerry Rubin, center, and Abbie Hoffman; standing, from left, were Lee Weiner, Mr. Lamb and Tom Hayden.Credit…Associated Press

Rennard Cordon Davis was born May 23, 1941, in Lansing, Mich., to John and Dorothy Davis. His father was a labor economist who joined President Harry S. Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers, and the family lived in Bethesda, Md., during those White House years. His mother was a schoolteacher. When Truman left office — Rennie was in the seventh grade — the family moved to a 500-acre farm in Berryville, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

While many ’60s radicals were growing up in cities or suburbs, Mr. Davis spent much of his youth in an idyllic rural setting. He was student body president and played varsity basketball in high school. But he later said that winning the 4-H Clubs’ Eastern U.S. chicken-judging championship was the proudest moment of his high school career.

As told in “Fire in the Streets” (1979), Milton Viorst’s account of 1960s radicalism, a senior year high school trip to New York City left Mr. Davis torn between remaining in pastoral rural Virginia and wanting to address the ills of poverty and race that he saw in the city’s troubled neighborhoods.

He turned down a scholarship to study animal husbandry at Virginia Tech and instead enrolled at Oberlin in 1958. There he became joined at the hip with Paul Potter, a fellow student who later became president of S.D.S. Impressed by the civil rights movement in the South, particularly the 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., and taken with a belief in the power of his generation to affect change, Mr. Davis became a full-time activist and one of the most committed S.D.S. leaders.

A rally at Grant Park in Chicago in August 1968 turned into a riot, with police clubbing demonstrators. A national commission later called it a police riot, but federal officials charged Mr. Davis and seven others with conspiracy and inciting to riot.Credit…Associated Press

Associates remember two sides to Mr. Davis. On the one hand, he was one of the movement’s most successful organizers. Focused and empathetic, he worked in Chicago with poor white people from Appalachia, played bluegrass banjo at parties and did much of the serious negotiating with the city for permits to march and camp out before the Chicago convention.

The journalist Nicholas von Hoffman once described him as “the most stable, the calmest, the most enduring of that group of young people who set out to change America at the beginning of the ’60s.”

But many also remember him as an enthusiastic promoter of causes with an elastic view of reality who believed in the importance of fudging the truth in the interest of building a movement.

“He used to say the way to organize is with smoke and mirrors,” said Richard Flacks, an early S.D.S. leader who became a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “He believed in political salesmanship, creating a kind of myth that wasn’t quite a lie but created an image of possibility, even if it wasn’t yet true.”

Alex Sharp, far right, played Mr. Davis in the recent Aaron Sorkin film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Mr. Davis complained that the movie portrayed him as “a complete nerd afraid of his own shadow.”Credit…Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Friends and associates said he also became a more than casual user of drugs, including LSD.

As the energy leeched out of leftist politics, Mr. Davis’s promotional instincts took a surprising turn when he accepted a free plane ticket to India to learn about Guru Maharj Ji. He later said that the experience had filled him “from head to toe with light.” He became a convert and spokesman for Maharj Ji (who was born Prem Pal Singh Rawat), saying the guru’s teachings would provide “a practical way to fulfill all the dreams” of the 1960s, “a practical method to end poverty, racism, sexism, imperialism.”

At 32, he proclaimed, “I would cross the planet on my hands and knees to touch his toe.”

That movement peaked with an underwhelming turnout at an event called Millennium 73, held at the Astrodome in Houston in November 1973, where Guru Maharj Ji appeared in a glittering silver suit on a blue plexiglass throne. Mr. Davis had billed it as “the most important gathering of humanity in the history of the world” and said he expected 100,000 people to show up. The police estimated the turnout at 10,000, and even some of the guru’s followers began to question the young man’s lavish lifestyle, complete with a Rolls-Royce. His celebrity soon waned.

Many former allies saw Mr. Davis’s mystical detour as a depressing generational metaphor.

“Everyone was trying to reinvent themselves after the stuffing of the New Left had fallen out, trying to find ways to heal their broken psyches,” the author and scholar Todd Gitlin said in an interview for this obituary in 2018, “and Rennie took the most garish, the most mockable, the most virtually self-caricatured of those paths.” Mr. Gitlin had first met Mr. Davis as a fellow student radical at an S.D.S. convention in 1963.

Mr. Davis in New York City in 1972. Nicholas von Hoffman described him as “the most stable, the calmest, the most enduring of that group of young people who set out to change America at the beginning of the ’60s.”Credit…Leni Sinclair/Getty Images

Mr. Davis remained active in relative obscurity, mostly in Colorado, for decades afterward, promoting his work in business consulting, technology, socially responsible investment and various healing regimens. He recalled taking what he called “a long, quiet sabbatical at the bottom of the Grand Canyon” after an unexpected business collapse in the 1990s.

He later became chairman of the Foundation for a New Humanity, which sold “peak performance” elixirs, touted a new approach to meditation and promised a transformative New Humanity World Tour for a movement “larger than the Renaissance, American Revolution and Sixties combined.”

Still, even friends who had shaken their heads at his Guru Maharaj Ji episode say that Mr. Davis had been sincere in the paths he took, that he had never turned his back on the politics and values of his youth, and that his exploratory route, moving from political activism to more spiritual and personal pursuits, was similar to that of many other members of his generation.

“People went off in different directions; not everyone became the rootless cosmopolitans most of us did,’’ said Daniel Millstone, a friend from Mr. Davis’s S.D.S. days. “If there were only one road you were allowed to follow, it would have made more sense to judge him harshly. But he was never angry or hateful. I never thought he was ever a huckster kind of guy.”

Susan Gregory, his partner from 1969 to 1973 and a longtime friend after that, said: “He felt called to try and change the world, to end the war, to bring peace, to help people who needed help. He was not ideological. He followed his heart, his inner feeling. He was true to that regardless what people thought about what he was doing or who he was.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Davis is survived by two daughters, Lia and Maya; a son, Sky; a sister, Bea; two brothers, John and Bob; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Davis remained proud of his role in history and convinced of his era’s continued relevance. In an unpublished article he wrote last year, he was critical of Mr. Sorkin’s film, saying its portrayals of the events surrounding the Chicago Seven trial and the people involved, including him, were inaccurate. (“I was portrayed as a complete nerd afraid of his own shadow,” he complained. “I felt sorry for Tony winner Alex Sharp who played me.”)

“I once told the Chicago defendants,” he wrote, “that no movie producer will ever fully capture the courage and elegance of the actual defendants. It was my honor to know them. They were an inspiration that is needed again today.”

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