Dymally, Mervyn M.
Mervyn M. Dymally
Politician, civil rights activist
Mervyn M. Dymally is a native son of the Caribbean. He was born in Trinidad, West Indies on May 12, 1926, the third of nine children. His mother was a native Trinidadian; his father's family had come from India. Dymally and his second wife, former teacher Alice Gueno of New Orleans, were married in 1964. They had two children, Mark and Lynn. Dymally makes his home in Compton, California, the district he has represented in the California Assembly, Senate, and the United States House of Representatives.
Dymally's early education was received in the primary and secondary schools of San Fernando, Trinidad. After high school, Dymally was employed as a staff reporter for the Oil Workers' Trade Union newspaper, The Vanguard. He left Trinidad in 1946 to further his education in journalism at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. After brief stays in Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois, he headed to California, enrolling first at Chapman College, then California State University at Los Angeles. He graduated in 1954 with a B.A. in special education. He began his career as a special education teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Throughout his years in public office, he continued to further his education. He was awarded a master's degree in government from California State University at Sacramento, and a Ph.D. in human behavior from United States International University, San Diego. He is the recipient of several honorary doctorates.
Entry into California Politics
Dymally became a U.S. citizen, but his distinctive Caribbean accent remained his unique characteristic. Seeking opportunities to enter political arena at the grass-roots level, he became active in the American Federation of Teachers. He joined the local Democratic Party and served as treasurer for the California Federation of Young Democrats. During the 1960 presidential election, he was a field coordinator for the John F Kennedy campaign. These experiences were pivotal in building the support base he needed to run for the State Legislative Assembly. Two years later he easily won the historically black and solidly democratic 53rd district in Compton, an area south of Los Angeles. He was the first foreign-born black elected to the assembly.
In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, marking the dawn of a new era for blacks and race relations in the United States. When the Watts district of South Central Los Angeles, where people were straining under the duress of high unemployment and inadequate housing and schools, erupted in violence, Dymally was there to help find solutions. In 1966, he ran for the 29th District Senate seat. His win made him the first African American to serve in the California State Senate and one of the few politicians to make the move from the Assembly to the Senate.
Dymally's political clout enabled him to capture the post of Democratic Caucus chair in the Senate. He headed the powerful reapportionment committee following the 1970 census. A number of other key committees fell under his chairmanship, including social welfare, military and veterans' affairs, elections and a select committee on medical education and health. He became a vocal advocate, fighting to improve social services for blacks and other minorities. He was the primary author and sponsor of significant pieces legislation, including the bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in California and to reduce the voting age to eighteen. He sponsored early childhood education legislation to improve funding and to teach black history in the public schools. He was instrumental in the passage of the Prison Reform Act and the California Fair Plan. The latter was designed to increase the availability of property insurance to owners of property considered high risk.
Elected Lieutenant Governor
In 1970, Dymally was instrumental in establishing the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, founded to provide guidance and to increase black participation in the political process. He handpicked and surrounded himself with young black aides whom he groomed for political positions. Rumors of a rivalry with Tom Bradley, the new mayor of Los Angeles, were fuelled as the two backed competing candidates for political office. In 1974, Dymally was elected as California's first black lieutenant governor at the same time and by the same slim margin that Jerry Brown was elected governor. His name was now inextricably linked to the national political agenda. When Brown announced his candidacy for president in 1976 with Dymally's endorsement, speculation grew that he was being primed for the governorship. Not everyone was singing his praises though. The 1974 campaign had raised issues regarding his ethics and integrity. Allegations of conflicts of interests were unearthed. Charges ranged from questionable use of campaign funds; authorship of legislation to benefit his businesses; nepotism in public and political positions; and multiple billings for office expenses. None of the charges was proven or advanced beyond the allegation stage. Dymally repeatedly declared that the charges were trumped up because he was a black man in high political office.
As lieutenant governor Dymally was involved at the highest levels of state government, with responsibility for governing, education, trade and the economy, law enforcement, and the environment. He is credited with raising the visibility of the office by significantly increasing the level of activity. Two important commissions fell under his jurisdiction, the State Commission for Economic Development (to develop and foster economic growth) and the Commission of the Californias (to develop favorable relations with Baja California and Mexico). As lieutenant governor, he cast the historic tie-breaking vote in 1975 that led to the passage of the first major gay rights legislation in the nation.
Dymally was defeated in his 1978 reelection bid for the lieutenant governorship by the Republican candidate Mike Curb. It was a bitter campaign with each candidate slinging accusations of criminal conduct. The old charges from the 1974 campaign were resurrected and publicized with additional claims of an imminent indictment. Dymally characterized the charges as dirty tricks. He was never indicted, and his opponent later apologized.
In 1980, Dymally entered the Democratic primary race vying for a seat representing the 31st District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was running against the nine-term incumbent democrat, Charles H. Wilson and three other opponents. Congress had recently censored Mr. Wilson for misappropriating campaign funds. This played heavily in Dymally's favor. Although his opponents resurrected the skeletons from his closet, the record he had built in the California Assembly, particularly in social services, remained firm. He waged a positive grassroots campaign focusing on the issues of residential crime and economic development. With the support of friends like labor leader Cesar Chavez, who helped deliver the Hispanic vote, Dymally catapulted to a decisive victory and the U.S. Congress welcomed its first black foreign-born member.
Dymally broadened his experience and knowledge of both domestic and foreign affairs with membership on House congressional committees, including the Post Office, Civil Service, District of Columbia, and Foreign Affairs. In 1991 he became chair of the Subcommittee on African Affairs that reviewed World Bank and African Development Bank programs. He had long had an interest in Africa and traveled to twenty African countries during his chairmanship. African nations very much appreciated his leadership and praised his efforts and initiatives to raise awareness of the issues, particularly human rights.
- Born in Cedros, Trinidad, West Indies on May 12
- Immigrates to the United States
- Graduates from Los Angeles State College, B.A. special education
- Begins career as a special education teacher
- Becomes a U.S. citizen
- Elected as a representative in the California State Assembly
- First black elected to the California State Senate
- Marries Alice M. Gueno of New Orleans
- Receives M.A. in government from California State University, Sacramento
- First black elected lieutenant governor of California
- Receives a Ph.D. in human behavior from United States International University, San Diego, California
- First foreign-born black elected to the U.S. Congress, House of Representatives
- Retires from U.S. Congress after serving 10 years
- Post office building in Compton named in his honor
- Reelected to the California State Assembly
As a member and later chair of the Congressional Black Caucus he reacted firmly and aggressively to the various issues affecting minorities. Dymally is considered the most influential African American on U.S. African affairs and foreign policy. He believed that U.S. policy has never been coherent or consistent outside protecting oil interests. Dymally saw the key to solving the political unrest in Africa, not in democracy but economic support for debt reduction, poverty, healthcare, education, and transportation. Dymally's colleagues in Congress, however, did not always support his views on Africa. He frequently sponsored relief bills for war-torn Liberia and achieved some measure of success during George H. Bush's presidency.
The Caribbean always remained near and dear to his heart. Dymally founded the Caribbean Action Lobby and the Dymally International Group Incorporated, to foster development projects in Africa and the Caribbean. He chaired the Caribbean Task Force of the Black Caucus, seeking to improve relations between U.S. blacks and their Caribbean neighbors. Dymally and the Caucus were particularly displeased with the 1983 Grenada intervention. After initial reluctance, they supported President Reagan's Caribbean Basin Initiative but remained opposed to the administration's sugar policy that negatively affected the region.
Dymally retired from public service in 1992 after a long, successful, and diverse career in education and government. Although he declared himself to be in good health, he had undergone surgery for prostate cancer. On his retirement he was praised for his leadership on Africa and was honored by African countries as their American champion. Even with his support, though, his daughter, Lynn, lost her bid to win his vacated seat.
After retiring from Congress, Dymally spent his time traveling and teaching. He visited Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean and has remained very active in educational and political affairs. A plethora of teaching appointments, including Central State in Ohio, the Charles R. Drew University in Los Angeles, and various California colleges, have kept him fully engaged.
He has founded, helped organize, or served as chair of numerous organizations, including: the Joint Center for Political Studies, the Caribbean American Research Action Inc., the Urban Affairs Institute, the National Conference of Black Elected Officials, and the Congressional Institute for Science, Space, and Technology. Dymally has authored, edited, or contributed to a number of published works. In 2000, he received the distinction of having the post office building in Compton, California, named after him.
Makes Political Comeback
In 2002, after a ten-year break, he was reelected at age seventy-six to the California State Assembly. Dubbed the comeback kid, he quipped characteristically that politics was in his blood, and he had never really retired from public service. He captured a seat in the predominately Hispanic 52nd congressional district. Dymally campaigned on his experience and attributed his win to concentrating on the issues most important to the people.
Dymally is described as industrious, aggressive, and daring. Yet many rate the accomplishments during his 40-year career as modest. Some charge that his prolonged focus on foreign nations left him little time to advocate for the needs of local constituents. He has been criticized for his public association with Marxist leaders. Allegations of fraud, bribery, and tainted campaign contributions have clouded his record. Yet Dymally assessed his own legacy not in terms of legislation but in his openness and willingness to serve all the people of his state.
Chandler, Trevor L. A Conversation with Mervyn M. Dymally, Lieutenant Governor, State of California. Seattle, Wash.: Office of Minority Affairs, University of Washington, 1975.
Clay, William L. Just Permanent Interest: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1971. New York: Amistad Press, 1992.
Dymally, Mervyn M. Interview by Elston L Carr. State Government Oral History Program. Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California, 1997.
Evory, Ann. "Mervyn M(alcolm) Dymally." In Contemporary Authors: A Biographical Guide to Current Authors and Their Works, 41-44. Ed. Ann Evory. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1979.
Haskins, James. Distinguished African American Political and Governmental Leaders. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1999.
U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1989. 101st Cong., 2nd sess., 1990, H.Doc.117, serial 13947, 43-44.
Brice, Jessica. "Top Black Politician Returns to Reclaim Assembly Seat at Age 76." Associated Press Newswires, 9 December 2002.
Dymally, Mervyn. "IMF Policies are 'an Absolute, Total Disaster': interview with Harley Schlanger, 29 August 1997." Executive Intelligence Review (12 September 1997): 66-68.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. "California Lawmaker Backs Herb Product for State Study." The San Diego Union-Tribune, 10 July 2003.
"Mervyn Malcolm Dymally." The Associated Press, 20 May 1989.
Robinson, Louie. "Breakthrough: Mervyn M. Dymally Takes Over California's Number Two Slot of Lieutenant Governor." Ebony, 30 (March 1975):128+.
Warner, Mary. "Mervyn Dymally: Expanding the Lieutenant Governor's Role." Sepia 27 (November 1978): 26-32.
Yacoe, Donald. "California Ex-lieutenant Governor joins Doley Securities as Vice-Chairman." The Bond Buyer 13 (September 1993): 4.
Dymally, Mervyn M. "California State Assembly Member. Mervyn M. Dymally." California State Assembly. http://democrats.assembly.ca.gov/members/a52/ (Accessed 10 January 2005).
Dymally's papers are in Special Collections, University Library, California State University, Los Angeles.