Dellinger, David Tyre

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Dellinger, David Tyre

(b. 22 August 1915 in Wakefield, Massachusetts; d. 25 May 2004 in Montpelier, Vermont), antiwar radical pacifist and advocate of nonviolent direct action.

Dellinger had two sisters and one brother. His maternal grandmother had been active in the Daughters of the American Revolution, though his mother, Marie E. (Fiske) Dellinger, was not. Dellinger’s father’s family arrived in the colonies before the American Revolution and moved to North Carolina before the Revolutionary War.

Dellinger’s mother was a homemaker, a volunteer for charities, and a social club organizer. His father, Raymond Pennington Dellinger, was a Boston attorney who chaired the Wakefield Republican town committee. A friend of Calvin Coolidge, Raymond Dellinger was a strikebreaker during the 1919 Boston police strike. Dellinger wrote in his autobiography, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter (1993), that his father, although conservative, was a man who defended Catholics, then victims of discrimination, and would “help anyone he knew who was poor or suffering in any way.” The exceptions were “atheists and labor leaders, anarchists like Sacco and Vanzetti, women who smoked and anyone who drank—and that was only if he didn’t know them.”

In 1932, at the age of seventeen, Dellinger entered Yale University to study philosophy but eventually switched to economics. At Yale and again at Oxford, he was a close friend of Walt Rostow, who, Dellinger wrote in his autobiography, “used to give me books and articles that advocated the basic communist philosophy” but later became an architect of the Vietnam War in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Although he believed the economic reforms of the New Deal in the midst of the devastating Great Depression were inadequate, Dellinger rejected the appeal of Communism because it “lacked my spiritual emphasis” and did not include nonviolence, which throughout his life Dellinger believed to be the way to achieve justice and peace. He was instead deeply impressed by Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi and their philosophy of nonviolence.

After graduating with a BA from Yale in 1936, Del-linger traveled to Great Britain on a fellowship. He studied philosophy at Oxford University, although he would not earn a degree there. Then, because of his admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi’s selfless service to the poor and ill, Dellinger visited the saint’s hometown in Italy. During the Spanish Civil War, Dellinger drove an ambulance for the loyalist government. He also made several trips to Germany, where he witnessed what he said were American corporations’ and the U.S. government’s “continuing alliance” with the Nazi government and its business interests. Dellinger was especially appalled by and would later publicly condemn the savage treatment meted out to Jews and to all the Nazis’ political opponents.

Searching for a way to fight for what he perceived to be just causes and eager to learn more about the prophetic tradition of Judaism and the Gospel, Dellinger enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and considered becoming a Congregationalist minister. He immediately joined with like-minded seminarians to establish the Newark Commune, situated in a black neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. The commune fed the impoverished population while demonstrating against restaurants and stores unwilling to serve or hire black people.

Although they were entitled to a religious exemption, Dellinger and seven other seminarians on 16 October 1940 refused to register for the draft. All were expelled from the seminary and excoriated by many clerical leaders. Dellinger later explained in From Yale to Jail that young men, more often than not from poor families, had long been used as cannon fodder. He wrote, “I thought about how that tragedy would be repeated generation after generation unless we developed a nonviolent antiwar movement that denied itself special privileges and worked to achieve economic democracy.” For refusing to register for the draft, Dellinger was sentenced to prison for a year and a day.

After serving his sentence at the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut, Dellinger was reindicted for continuing to refuse to register for the draft, received a second sentence, and was sent to the maximum-security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Undaunted and never one to accept any situation he considered unjust, Dellinger led hunger strikes against racial segregation and censorship of prisoner mail, for which he was often punished. He said, “I received more genuine religious stimulation in prison than in the seminary.”

On 4 February 1942, not long after meeting her, Del-linger married Elizabeth Peterson, a student reporter who had asked to interview him at a Christian student conference. The couple had two daughters and three sons.

After World War II Dellinger continued writing but always participated in direct, nonviolent actions. He engaged in a two-week fast in 1946 to protest the manufacture of the hydrogen bomb, engaged in sit-ins, and worked with numerous nonviolent organizations and committees. Dellinger founded magazines, among them Direct Action with A. J. Muste, the pacifist labor leader, and Dorothy Day, the cofounder of the anarchist-pacifist Catholic Worker movement; Alternative; and Liberation in conjunction with the War Resisters League. As editor and publisher of Liberation, Dellinger recruited notable pacifists to write for the magazine: Muste, Bayard Rustin, Barbara Deming, Paul Goodman, and Sidney Lens. In 1975 Del-linger was named editor of Seven Days, which ceased publication in 1980.

On 3 July 1964, the day that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and while the United States was secretly becoming more involved in the civil war in Vietnam, Dellinger along with Muste, Rabbi Abraham L. Feinberg, the singer Joan Baez, and Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the two Roman Catholic priests who would later become famous for their antiwar and antidraft activities, stood in Lafayette Square across from the White House to protest American participation in Vietnam. The demonstrators believed, accurately as it turned out, that the war would lead to an enormous number of military and civilian casualties.

In Revolutionary Nonviolence (1970), a collection of his essays, Dellinger expressed his basic creed. In the cause of liberty and peace, he urged direct action without violence: “draft refusal, tax refusal, aid to deserters, strikes, boycotts, non-cooperation and the disruption of repressive institutions.” An obituary in the National Catholic Reporter quoted Dellinger as saying, “The [nonviolent] acts we perform must be the responsible acts of free men, not the irresponsible acts of conscripts under orders. We must fight against institutions but not against people.”

Undaunted by the central government’s power, Del-linger was never one to remain neutral or silent. He and his supportive family were willing to suffer personally in confrontations with the government and others. Peterson was blacklisted as a teacher, the children were harassed at school, and Dellinger was the recipient of repeated death threats. Even so, Dellinger became a leader and key organizer against the Vietnam War. He helped to organize the first mass antiwar protest in New York City, which took place in 1965, and the 1967 march on the Pentagon, which was memorialized in Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night (1968).

Dellinger cochaired with Norma Becker important groups such as the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee and he cochaired the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. As a major antiwar figure, Dellinger was invited to visit North Vietnam. There he met Ho Chi Minh, the country’s president, who allowed Dellinger to escort home several American prisoners of war. Dellinger commented in his autobiography how the Vietnamese leader “chuckled about how baffled the U.S. rulers must be ‘at the failure of the great and wealthy United States to conquer the poor peasant country of Vietnam.’”

From 1969 to 1970 Dellinger was one of the defendants in the trial of the Chicago Eight: Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. The group became the Chicago Seven when Seale was ejected from the courtroom and his case separated from the others. In 1968 Dellinger had addressed thousands of protestors and offered to lead a march to the convention arena where the Democratic Party delegates were gathered to select a presidential nominee to oppose President Richard M. Nixon. Police halted the parade and assaulted protesters with clubs and tear gas as the nation watched on television. Dellinger and the others were indicted for crossing state lines with intent to incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in, and carry on a riot during the convention.

After a tumultuous trial the Chicago Seven were found guilty. However, on 21 November 1972 the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conspiracy convictions. The ruling noted that Judge Julius Hoffman had been unfair to the defendants and that he had allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to place a listening device in the defendants’ lawyers’ offices. Judge Hoffman’s contempt rulings against the defendants were upheld, but none of the defendants, including Seale, went to prison.

In his seventies Dellinger and his wife moved to Vermont, where he continued writing and taught at Goddard College and Vermont College. On 25 May 2004 in Montpelier, Vermont, having had Alzheimer’s disease, Dellinger died at age eighty-eight of pneumonia-induced heart failure; his remains were cremated. He was survived by his wife, three of his sons, and his two daughters. In tribute Colman McCarthy, a pacifist and the director of the Center for Teaching Peace, told the Washington Post that Dellinger was “an icon of nonviolence who taught that all of us are called to be peacemakers. In an era diseased with war, his arguments for pacifism remain bedrock-sound.”

Some of Dellinger’s papers are in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection Library, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Among Dellinger’s books are Dave Dellinger, More Power Than We Know (1975); and Michael Albert and Dave Dellinger, eds., Beyond Survival (1983). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times (all 27 May 2004), and the National Catholic Reporter (18 June 2004).

Murray Polner