“If being an advocate of peace, justice and humanity toward all human beings is radical, then I’m glad to be called radical."
- Ron Dellums, 1935-2018
From his New York Times obituary:
Ron Dellums, 82, Dies; Unrelenting in Congress, He Upheld Left’s Ideals
"Ron Dellums, the son of a longshoreman who became one of America’s best-known black congressmen, a California Democrat with a left-wing agenda that put civil rights and programs for people ahead of weapons systems and warfare, died early Monday at his home in Washington. He was 82.
His death was confirmed by Dan Lindheim, who was an aide to Mr. Dellums on Capitol Hill and was city manager of Oakland when Mr. Dellums was a one-term mayor there a decade ago. Mr. Dellums had cancer, he said.
A former social worker representing Oakland and Berkeley, perhaps the nation’s most liberal congressional district, Mr. Dellums went to Washington in 1971 as a fiercely liberal — some said radical — firebrand protesting the Vietnam War.
He demanded a House investigation into American war crimes in Vietnam. When his pleas were ignored, he held his own informal hearings, which drew national attention. As antiwar protests raged outside the Capitol, a former Army sergeant told in unsworn testimony how he and his platoon had massacred 30 men, women and children in a Vietnamese village. It was a shocking beginning.
But over the next 27 years, Mr. Dellums became a calmer voice, still defending principles as he saw them, but as a mellower graybeard spearheading the Congressional Black Caucus and conferring with the White House, the Pentagon and leaders of Congress as a member and finally chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee.
By then, a lawmaker who had cut a striking figure on joining the House of Representatives — 6 feet 4, with a modified Afro and a drooping mustache, mod ties, Edwardian jackets and bell-bottom trousers — was wearing three piece suits.
Mr. Dellums introduced hundreds of bills and resolutions that went nowhere, and was rarely on the winning side of fights. But he was an outspoken critic of presidents, Republican and Democratic, and for many Americans beyond his tiny Congressional district, he championed a progressive mantra: Stop war. Cut military spending. Help people. Address the nation’s social problems.
He won a dozen re-election campaigns and the sometimes grudging respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle. His voting record also won virtually straight A’s from labor, consumer, women’s and environmental groups. Human rights organizations hailed his fights to restrict aid to African nations, like Zaire, Burundi, Liberia and Sudan, whose regimes were openly repressive.
After a 14-year campaign against apartheid in South Africa, he wrote the 1986 legislation that mandated trade embargoes and divestment by American companies and citizens of holdings in South Africa. President Ronald Reagan’s veto was overridden by Congress, a 20th-century first in foreign policy. The sanctions were lifted in 1991, when South Africa repealed its apartheid laws.
Mr. Dellums opposed every major American military intervention of his tenure, except for emergency relief in Somalia in 1992. He sued President George H. W. Bush unsuccessfully to stop the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, saying the invasion did not have congressional authorization. And he voted against the new weapons programs and military budgets of all six presidents in his era.
His “alternative” budgets, written for the Congressional Black Caucus (he was a founding member in 1971 and chairman from 1989 to 1991) proposed spending instead for education, jobs, housing, health care, assistance for the poor and programs to fight drug abuse.
Right-wing critics repeatedly labeled him a Communist, citing his 1970 talk to a world peace conference in Stockholm and his meeting with President Fidel Castro of Cuba in Havana in 1977.
He was unperturbed.
“If being an advocate of peace, justice and humanity toward all human beings is radical, then I’m glad to be called radical,” he told The Washington Post. “And if it is radical to oppose the use of 70 percent of federal monies for destruction and war, then I am a radical.”
Over time, congressional colleagues came to respect Mr. Dellums’s legislative and military expertise. In 1993, the House Democratic Caucus voted 198-10 to name him chairman of the Armed Services Committee, with oversight for defense appropriations and global military operations.
He was the first African-American and the first antiwar activist to hold that post. A fox-in-the-henhouse cartoon portrayed a general and an admiral at the committee door under a banner proclaiming, “Under New Management.” Inside, Mr. Dellums brandishes a meat ax. “Call security,” one military man says to the other.
“I disagree with him utterly and completely,” Baker Spring, a military analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, told USA Today. “But he’s upfront, open and honest, not in the least vindictive about the way he pursues his legislative agenda.”
During his two years as the committee chairman, Mr. Dellums conferred with President Bill Clinton and Defense Secretary Les Aspin on military policies. With the Cold War over, he achieved cutbacks in some weapons programs, notably the B-2 Spirit (Stealth) bomber. But he failed to make substantial progress in redirecting budget priorities from defense to domestic programs.
His decision to retire in 1998, halfway through his term, made headlines, and brought many encomiums.
Read the complete New York Times obituary here.
Photo by the Associated Press.
Read our alumni spotlight with Dellums here.