Dellums, Ronald 1935–
Ronald Dellums 1935–
Politician, civil rights activist
The lexicon of the conservative movement contains no more derogatory a word, some say, than the “L word”—liberal. Many conservatives believe that liberals favor policies that benefit only a small minority of Americans. Among other things, conservatives argue that liberals want to tax the hard-working middle-class to help support the poor—some of whom refuse to work—and to reduce military spending, thereby weakening America’s stand against a growing global threat. Beyond that, some conservatives maintain that there exists a body of politicians at the extreme left end of the political spectrum whose actions and beliefs are so radical and anti-majority that they suggest communistic sympathies.
No one congressman has taken a position in that liberal body more boldly than Ronald Dellums. Since being elected to Congress in 1970, Dellums has assumed leadership of the radical left, strongly denouncing a military buildup he sees leading to nuclear holocaust, advocating sanctions against the South African government for its discriminatory policy of apartheid, and fighting for causes and groups conservatives label radical, even communistic. Dellums has been mocked, scorned, and feared. Michael Kazin related in Mother Jones that when a group of students visiting Washington asked President Ronald Reagan’s advisor Lyn Nofzinger which politicians they should see, he replied, “Let me first tell you who you should not see. Ron Dellums. He’s too liberal.” Dellums disregards such political barbs. He is a man acting on a searing ideology. “Democracy is not about being a damn spectator against the backdrop of tap-dancing politicians swinging in the winds of expediency,” he was quoted as saying by Kazin.
The force behind Dellums’s fierce determination to redress the problems he sees in society is rooted in his early work experiences. Born and raised in the slums of Oakland, California, Dellums did not distinguish himself academically early in his life. After graduation from high school and a two-year stint in the marines, however, he attended college, eventually earning a master’s degree in social work. His first job in that field, assisting former mental patients with assimilation back into society, awakened his social conscience. “The human suffering to which he was exposed had a deep effect on Dellums,” Edward Glynn wrote in America. “He began to realize
Born Ronald Vernie Dellums, November 24, 1935, in Oakland, CA; son of Vernie (a Pullman porter and stevedore) and Willa (a government clerk) Dellums; married Leola Roscoe Higgs, January 1962; children: Brandy, Erik, and Piper. Education: Oakland City College, A.A., 1958; San Francisco State College, B.A., 1960; University of California at Berkeley, M.S.W., 1962. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Protestant.
Psychiatric social worker, California Department of Mental Hygiene, 1962-64; program director, Bayview Community Center, 1964-65; associate director, then director, Hunters Point Youth Opportunity Center, 1965-66; planning consultant, Bay Area Social Planning Council, 1966-67; director, Concentrated Employment Program, San Francisco Economic Opportunity Council, 1967-68; senior consultant, Social Dynamics, Inc. (manpower specialization programs), 1968-70; Berkeley City Council member, 1967-70; U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., Democratic congressman from Eighth District of California, 1970—;served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1984. Lecturer at San Francisco State College, University of California, and Berkeley Graduate School of Social Welfare. Served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, House Committee on the District of Columbia, and Military Installations and Facilities Subcommittee; served as member of House Armed Services Committee, Military Research and Development Subcommittee, House Intelligence Committee, Defense Policy Panel, and others. Military service: U. S. Marine Corps, served two years active duty, 1954-56; honorably discharged.
Awards: Honorary doctor of law, Wilberforce University, 1975.
Addresses: Home —Oakland, CA. Office —U.S. House of Representatives, 2136 Rayburn Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515.
that being a young black from the ghetto with a master’s degree in psychiatric social work was not a sufficient contribution on his part to solving the problems of society that he saw as the causes of the human suffering he observed.”
Over the next few years, Dellums responded by assuming greater roles in wider-ranging social groups and programs, including the directorships of the Hunters Point Youth Opportunity Center and the San Francisco Economic Opportunity Council’s Concentrated Employment Program. Finally, in 1967, he was convinced by a group of community-concerned blacks to run for the Berkeley City Council. As Glynn pointed out, he stood as “the unity candidate of the black community with the endorsement of Berkeley’s Democratic Caucus and the Community for New Politics.” Dellums’s tenure on the council functioned as a preamble to his subsequent federal government service. He refused to be a part ruled by the body. He had his own agenda and sought his own vocabulary to express it. But Dellums’s motivation, throughout his career, has been the consolidated welfare of his constituents in particular and the American public in general. “He truly desires to bring people from various racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds together to work at solving the human problems of war, poverty, racism, nationalism, hunger, employment, and oppression that afflict all peoples,” Glynn explained. Seeking a greater ability to induce these social changes, Dellums ran for Congress in 1970, endorsed by Coretta Scott King and César Chavez, and using to his benefit Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew’s intentionally derisive remark that Dellums was an “out-and-out radical.” He won the election, becoming the Democratic representative from California’s Eighth District.
Dellums’s contentious nature in defending his beliefs has irked Republicans and even some cautious, moderate Democrats. He refuses to shade his opinions with decorum. “America is a nation of niggers. If you’re black, you’re a nigger. If you’re an amputee, you’re a nigger. Blind people, the handicapped, radical environmentalists, poor whites, those too far to the left are all niggers,” Dellums was quoted as saying in Politics in America. Even at the beginning of his congressional career, Dellums was not afraid to openly attack the established order. The authors of Mug Shots related an early Dellums diatribe: “We’ve always subsidized major corporations. We’ve subsidized electronics firms. We’ve subsidized oil millionaires with oil depletion allowances. We’ve subsidized farm combines. We’ve subsidized airlines. I’d like to have a bill passed that gave the poor a brand new industry and then have the government subsidize it.”
Some conservative critics claim that these condemnations merely reflect a representative more concerned with showmanship than statesmanship, and that Dellums’s early focus has become in subsequent years outdated. As a Politics in America writer noted: “His late-’60s rhetoric often sounds out of place [now], but he still offers it the way he did in the beginning: with a great deal of vigor, flashes of eloquence, and a casual disregard for orderly procedure. It is the oratorical flourishes of the floor that have attracted him, rather than the tedious work of committee business.”
Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa in The Almanac of American Politics sought to dismiss Dellums’s effectiveness, taking further the idea that his beliefs are antiquated: “He believes, as civil rights marchers did, that American society is infected with racism; he believes, as poverty warriors once did, that government should be much more generous to the poor; he believes, as Vietnam war protestors did, that American military spending is excessive and threatens world peace.” But others are more contemptuous in their assessment of Dellums, believing his capabilities and activities might subvert American policies. A reporter for the National Review claimed that in addition to the Soviet-front World Peace Council, Dellums “also had chummy personal ties to the Communist government of Grenada and to [Cuban dictator] Fidel Castro himself.” And Joshua Muravchik, writing in the New Republic, questioned Dellums’s integrity after he was placed on the House Intelligence Committee: “[Dellums] has so often embraced some of the very movements and governments on which America collects intelligence that it is hard to see how U.S. agencies can function while obligated to share with him their most sensitive secrets.”
Since he first took his seat in the House of Representatives, Dellums has sought to expose and eradicate racism. “I’m black, I’m [an] ethnic minority, I’m a human being,” he told Glynn. “In all three of these categories I have been oppressed. And I live with millions of people who are also oppressed.” With this in mind, Dellums fought to be named to two committees after his election: the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on the District of Columbia. The latter committee, overseeing the governing of the national capital, a city predominantly black, was previously under the domain of southern white congressmen. Dellums changed that. Before he was named to the Armed Services Committee in 1973, Dellums tried unsuccessfully to have the committee investigate racism in the armed forces. Rejecting protocol, he set up his own ad hoc investigating committee to explore the subject He also made unscheduled visits to military bases to speak directly to black soldiers. Dellums further sought to protect the interests of black citizens by becoming a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group formed by black lawmakers in 1970 to develop legislation that addresses the special needs of the black community. He eventually became its chairman.
Dellums’s focus on the oppression of minority groups has not been limited to America, however. As reported in Jet magazine, “it was Dellums who in 1973 first introduced legislation calling for comprehensive sanctions against South Africa” for its racist governmental policies. His initiatives were discarded. But Dellums refused to moderate, taking his cause to the street in the famous marches on the South African Embassy in Washington during the winter of 1984. Dellums was among those who spent a night in jail for occupying the embassy or for crossing police lines. Victory of sorts came in 1986 when House members adopted unanimously by voice vote his measure that called for the withdrawal of all American business and investments from South Africa and banned South African aircraft and strategic minerals from entering the United States. “The bill ultimately passed by Congress did not have such drastic sanctions,” Barone and Ujifusa emphasized, “but Dellums’s amendment did make vivid the House’s disgust with the South African regime and its own willingness to act. Dellums is entitled to satisfaction for having led the way for America to take a stand against injustice.” But some critics have pointed out that Dellums’s measure of injustice seems selective. A reporter for the National Review noted that Dellums’s “opposition to tyranny is confined to tyranny in South Africa.… There are a whole lot of countries in the Middle East against which Mr. Dellums hasn’t thought to propose sanctions that don’t allow the vote to women; and indeed, quite a few that don’t allow the vote to anyone.”
Racism, poverty, and other social and economic issues that drive Dellums combine to fuel his chief concern, conventional and nuclear arms escalation. “Big bombs are not going to bring human rights,” he told Kazin. “Big bombs won’t bring down the price of oil. Big bombs aren’t going to feed the 12 to 15 million people who die of hunger each year.” After his election to Congress, Dellums—a vocal antiwar demonstrator—intimidated the pro-war leadership of the Armed Services Committee by bringing into focus charges of atrocities in Vietnam. Since that time, even after gaining a position on the committee, Dellums has fervently challenged the militaristic stance of the United States. “Every year, Dellums makes a futile but flamboyant effort to cut defense authorization,” it was noted in Politics in America. But he is not deterred by failures. In 1977 Dellums was the first congressman to introduce an amendment against all funding for the development and deployment of the MX missile. In 1982 he joined in a suit accusing the U.S. government of violating the War Powers Act by sending military advisors to El Salvador. In 1983, after being named chairman of a subcommittee on military construction, Dellums criticized the U.S. invasion of Grenada. As part of a congressional fact-finding mission, he reportedly found that the American medical students, whom the military had gone in to rescue, had never been in any danger. But for his negative view, Dellums was summarily criticized. “His scathing denunciation of the Grenada invasion suggests that he sees virtue in the income-redistribution policies of Socialist countries and no harm in their military connections with the Soviet Union,” Barone and Ujifusa wrote.
That same year, Dellums published Defense Sense, a compilation of testimony from congressional hearings he conducted on the economic and social effects of an increasing nuclear arsenal and its consequent possible usage. In the book’s prologue, Dellums eloquently exhorted a change in military direction. “It is absolutely necessary for the United States to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the late twentieth century rather than to try to restore the mythology of an earlier era of American history. Such a program of constructive change demands arms limitation and reduction, not a further escalation of the arms race.” Dellums ventured that resources needlessly wasted on the military could be used effectively to solve social needs both at home and abroad. In reviewing Defense Sense for Library Journal, Robert L. Beckman found it to be “a humane and searching analysis” whose “moral drumbeat is unrelenting.”
Dellums does not reproach only the United States for its military outlook. Responding to a survey in the Nation prior to the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, he wrote of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet governments: “Both sides are at fault in creating a climate of mutual fear and distrust, and both have the moral and political responsibility to the rest of humankind to halt and then reverse the nuclear arms race.” Dellums is committed to a just and compassionate United States. He is also committed to world peace, and he knows of the connection between the two. “True peace entails more than the absence of war,” Dellums wrote in a political forum for Harper’s magazine. “It requires an unceasing effort to eliminate militarism, racism, and social and economic injustice, and to promote personal freedom and human dignity.”
(With R. H. Miller and H. L. Halterman) Defense Sense: The Search for a Rational Military Policy, edited by Patrick O’Hefferman, Ballinger, 1983.
Acton, Jay, Alan Le Mond, and Parker Hodges, Mug Shots: Who’s Who in the New Earth, World Publishing, 1972.
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics, 1990: The Senators, the Representatives, and the Governors, 10th edition, National Journal, 1989.
Ehrenhalt, Alan, editor, Politics in America: Members of Congress in Washington and at Home, Congressional Quarterly, 1983.
America, December 5, 1970.
Ebony, December 1989.
Harper’s, July 1984.
Jet, February 21, 1983; December 5, 1983; April 28, 1966; July 7, 1986.
Library Journal, January 1984.
Mother Jones, February/March 1982.
Nation, January 12, 1985.
National Review, April 25, 1986; August 1, 1986; June 19, 1987.
New Republic, March 11, 1991.
Newsweek, August 8, 1983; November 21, 1983.
Time, December 10, 1984.
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