When the Congressional Black Caucus holds its Annual Legislative Conference this September (September 12-16), I hope there will be a tribute to one of its founders, Congressman Ron Dellums, who made his transition on July 30. Dellums was a fierce, focused fighter for justice, an anti-war activist who served in the military, authored several CBC Alternative Budgets; budgets that focused on human needs rather than military buildup, and an indefatigable fighter for South African freedom. He is the epitome of Congressional activism, progressive leadership, and stellar integrity. After 27 years in Congress and a term as Oakland mayor, he had a much lower profile in recent years. Still, his name remains synonymous with principled leadership, and he will be sincerely missed!
Dellums blazed on the national political scene, decried by then Vice President Spiro Agnew as a “radical” from “Ber-zerkely." Dellums had the right response, telling the Washington Post – “If being an advocate of peace, justice, and humanity toward all human beings is radical, then I'm glad to be called radical. And if it is radical to oppose the use of 70 percent of federal monies for destruction and war, then I am a radical.” With this as a definition of "radical," the question, really, is why aren't there more radicals in our nation?
I’m not sure what Congressman Dellums would think of the organization he co-founded. While he became somewhat less confrontational the longer he served in Congress, the fight never left him. He didn't mind calling Presidents or his colleagues out, though he did it in a way that even conservative House Speaker Tom Delay (R-TX) described as gentlemanly. Upon Dellums’ retirement from the House of Representatives in the middle of his term in 1998, Delay said, “We are losing one of its finest Members, a Member that I have great respect for because he always did his homework, was so articulate and eloquent on this floor. He always got my attention when he stood up and took the microphone. He would stop every Member in their tracks to hear what he had to say, and there are very few Members that have served in this body that can claim the respect that both sides of the aisle had for the gentleman from California. And the incredible reputation that the gentleman from California has brought to this House; he has elevated this House. He has elevated the distinction of this House by serving here, and this House will greatly miss him when he leaves.”
Though Dellums ran for Congress as a Democrat and caucused with the Democrats, he did not register to vote as a Democrat until he ran for Mayor of Oakland. Indeed, he was one of the vice-chairs of the Democratic Socialists of America. His alternative budgets reflected socialistic principles, elevating human needs over military needs, embracing pacifism instead of war and military intervention. He had a masters' degree in social work, and it showed, both in his interactions with people and in the alternative budgets he worked on.
When I was a professor at UC Berkeley, I brought a group of students (I called them Bey-Bey's kids because some of them were so wild) to DC to soak up some public policy knowledge. Congressman Dellums' team told us he had 30 minutes for us, but when he met the group, got engaged with them and began to answer their questions, he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, pulled out a flip chart and broke down the CBC Alternative Budget. We were there for almost two hours, far more than the allotted time. He acknowledged that the Alternative Budget had no chance of passing, but said that he worked so hard on it because it was “a possibility.” He persistently fought for the right thing, even if the right thing was a long shot.
His tenacity was responsible for the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, legislation that imposed sanctions, urged US companies to stop doing business with South Africa, and set conditions, including the release of political prisoners, before sanctions could be lifted. Ronald Reagan vetoed the legislation, preferring "constructive engagement," but Congress overrode the veto, something that rarely happens in foreign policy matter. It is a tribute to Dellums’ political skills that a man who was ridiculed as a radical upon entering Congress had developed the kinds of bipartisan relationships that would override a presidential veto.
Dellums got much criticism for his time as Oakland mayor, but it is essential to note that not many, after serving 27 years in Congress, would have signed up to run a troubled city. He was drafted by the people of Oakland, who urged him to serve, and he defiantly told people that if they weren’t satisfied with his leadership, they could recall him! Ron Dellums used his national notoriety to lobby for his city, getting more recovery aid from the Obama administration than any other city except Chicago. He saw Oakland as a "Model City" and encouraged citizen participation, convening several task forces to help shape the direction of the city.
The best thing that Ron Dellums ever did was succession planning. He surrounded himself with younger, bright leaders and encouraged them in their aspirations. One of his protégés, Keith Carson, serves on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Another, Sandre’ Swanson, served in the California State Assembly. And Congresswoman Barbara Lee, as fierce a fighter as Dellums, was his hand-picked successor.
The Congressional Black Caucus today needs more Dellums energy. Oh, the Alternative Budges still annually prepared, but it doesn’t get the visibility that it should. Fierce fighters like Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters are often threatened and ridiculed, and not enough of their colleagues have their backs. And too many African American politicians are pragmatic, instead of being principled. May the spirit of Ron Dellums always live among African American and progressive leaders!
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. Her latest book “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy” is available via www.amazon.com for booking, wholesale inquiries or for more info visit www.juliannemalveaux.com