Ron Dellums, 1935–2018
The antiwar firebrand who became a liberal icon
When Ron Dellums first arrived at the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971, he said he knew that many of his fellow legislators regarded him as an “Afro-topped, bell-bottomed radical.” The antiwar Bay Area Democrat did everything he could to meet their expectations. In his first weeks in office, Dellums demanded a congressional investigation into American war crimes in Vietnam. When the request was denied, Dellums organized his own informal hearings, where a former Army sergeant described how he and his platoon had massacred 30 men, women, and children in a Vietnamese village. Dellums would mellow over time, rising to become the first African-American chair of the Armed Services Committee. But he remained a fierce critic of U.S. military interventions. “We have all this incredible [military] power massed,” he said on the eve of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, “but we do not need to use it. Our power lies in our capacity to go beyond it.”
Born to a longshoreman father and a beautician mother, “Dellums was a fighter from his early childhood,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. One of only a handful of black children at his Oakland junior high, he once came to blows with a white student who called him a “dirty black African.” After graduating from high school, Dellums served two years in the Marines before going to work as a psychiatric social worker, helping patients re-enter society. He challenged and beat Rep. Jeffery Cohelan, a six-term incumbent, in the 1970 Democratic primary. Dellums’ campaign drew the attention of Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew, said The Washington Post, who condemned the Democrat as an “out-and-out radical.” Dellums welcomed the criticism. “If it is radical to be against war and poverty,” he said, “then Ron Dellums is a radical.” He easily beat his GOP rival.
During his 14 terms in Congress, Dellums pushed a simple “progressive mantra,” said The New York Times: “Stop war. Cut military spending. Help people.” His greatest success came in 1986, when legislation he had authored to slap sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid government passed Congress with enough votes to override President Reagan’s veto. Dellums retired from the House in 1998 and later served a term as mayor of Oakland. To “march” on the floor of Congress knowing “that … you have life and death in your hands,” he said in his retirement speech, “it is an incredible thing.”