Congressman Dellums, welcome back to Berkeley. Thank you very much

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Congressman Dellums, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

How did your parents shape your character?

Let me start with my mother.

My mother is a person without letters, dropped out of high school. I came into the world; [she] went back and finished high school. My mother is a person very much interested in education, tremendous thirst for knowledge, and a very broad visionary human being who, in many ways, lived out her dreams of education through her children, as did my father.

My mother's shaping: she gave me a sense of who I was as a human being. I remember an incident where I had been challenged and the name calling was, "you dirty black African." The short version of it is, she could have reinforced my anger, because I struck back at this person with anger. And my mother's point was that if calling you "dirty" was important enough to rise up, than that should have been the only justification, not because you're black or not because he called you African, because you're both. You have many, many things. There are many adjectives that describe who you are as a human being, and two of them are that you are black and of African descent. And wherever you go for the rest of your life, you should be able to stand very tall and very proud as a human being and, when asked, when challenged as a black and an African, "Yes I am, and I'm very proud of it." So at that point my mother reinforced my humanity, my sense of myself, my own sense of pride, and her desire to see me fully educated.

My father, a person with a photographic memory, loved to debate, loved to challenge, loved to challenge the order of things. When I talked to him about what I learned in school he would say, "Never accept at face value. Always be willing to question. Be open to ideas. Search. Probe. Don't just be a robot." And so both of them together, I think, very much interested in the pursuit of educational excellence and on the other hand very proud people, race-conscious people, who allowed me to develop a sense of myself as a proud human being. They told me early on in my life that being black and being African was a good thing, so I was not burdened by that. I've never seen myself as a victim. I saw myself as fighting people who attempted to challenge me as a victim. So they gave me a very strong sense of myself and, at the center of it, education and learning and evolving are very important factors.

How did these influences affect you growing up in Oakland when you did?

Well, you know it was fascinating, because many of my friends internalized the same notions about my parents that I did. So whenever many of my friends were about to go off into adventures, sometimes on the edge, they would send me home. "Go home, man!" They would call me Sundown Ronny because my friends knew that my parents, when sundown came, I had to be home, I had to be there for meals, I had to be there to do my homework. And so in one sense, many of my friends saw me as a special person, living with a special group of people who wanted very much to see me pursue my education and I think, in many ways, were very protective of me. You know, "You're one of the guys who are going to make it out of here." And that was significant in reinforcing who I was.

I was born in 1935. West Oakland, early on, was a definite community. There were many white ethnics who lived in West Oakland as a working-class community. When World War II began, West Oakland became the major point of entry for black people coming in from the South, who came in to take advantage of the economic expansion and opportunities of the war economy, as it were. As a result of that, suddenly West Oakland over night becomes a small Southern town. And here's this kid who was going to St. Patrick's Catholic School, who spoke a little differently, who talked about different things, and many of these older persons from the South, who had very little if any education, were fascinated by this young guy. "Where did you learn these things?" Or sometimes I would go to visit my friends and we'd go to leave and the old folks would say, "No, sit a while, because I want to hear what this kid has to say." Then I would hear people say, you know, "That kid sure can talk! He's going to be a preacher or a lawyer some day." Well, as a kid those are reinforcing, and very positive reinforcements, and I think that had some significant import in shaping my life. I certainly wasn't a perfect guy. I dropped the ball many times along the way. ellums as a schoolboy at st. patrick\'s

Your uncle was also an influence on you. Tell us a little about him.

C. L. Dellums, as you know, joined with A. Philip Randolph. These were guys that came out of the twenties, these were the old left-wing guys in the twenties. They came together and organized the first African American trade union in the history of America, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. These were guys who placed a great premium on the spoken word as a way of organizing, to be impressive when they challenged people. You know, people thought A. Philip Randolph and C. L. Dellums and these guys were Harvard graduates, because they developed an affect that challenged the system to deal with them intellectually, at an eyeball-to-eyeball level.

Well, my uncle: here's this beautiful, erudite, incredibly well-groomed, impeccable person with extraordinary articulation who, on Seventh Street, had an office over the pool hall. So in my life with this magnificent success model, and wherever I went, people, when they'd hear my last name would say, "Is C. L. Dellums your father?" And I'd say "No, my father is Verney Dellums, but C. L. Dellums is my uncle." But I immediately began to realize that C. L. was the man and that he commanded respect across the broad spectrum of people in the Bay Area. And going to his office, he had a staff person, he had an office, he smoked a pipe, he dressed elegantly. He was a fighter, he was strong, he was courageous. So this success model in my life was very important in shaping my life, because here I knew that you could succeed, that you could be successful. You did not have to be intimidated, and that you could be respected by people, because the politics of that community came through him: union activity, civil rights activity, et cetera. He was just this incredible, larger-than-life person who continued to push me to pursue my education. ook cover

One of the other things that people noticed about you as a young person, and I'm quoting here from your new book Lying Down with the Lions, they said, "Now that boy understands what we were saying." You learned to be a listener as a young person didn't you?

Yes. Sometimes it was overstatement; sometimes I didn't understand. But I knew that I wouldn't understand if I didn't listen.

So I did learn how to listen. I was around adults a great deal and that became important, the ability to hear the other person, to listen to people, to try to fully understand what the other person is trying to say. Both my mother and my father and my grandmother instilled that in me. Listen to hear. And when they realized that I was listening and that, at some point, I could engage them seriously they said, this guy is understanding. So that again was a positive reinforcement.

Any books that you read as a young person, or later when you matured into adulthood, that stand out now, that affected you?

There was one book that stood out. You know I've read a lot of books along the way because, as I said, part of my upbringing, when kids would go out for the summer, I couldn't go out to play until I had read a certain amount of books all the time, so that was a constant reinforcement, the reading and the use of the library. But as a young adult having actually come out of the university, I had a master's degree, and I met this wonderful, wonderful African American who was the first Ph.D. that I met to know that he was a Ph.D. He handed me a book one day and he said, "I want you to read this book." And the title of the book was The Shoes of the Fisherman. Very briefly, it's a story about a Catholic cardinal imprisoned in the Soviet Union, freed, goes back to the Vatican by a strange set of circumstances. He becomes the Pope, and it's the story of how this guy escapes the Vatican to go out and touch people and continue to feel life in a real way. And he said, "When you finish the book, come talk with me." [Later:] "Why do you think I gave you this book?" I had no real idea. He said, "Because it's a story about the loneliness of leadership and the need to continue to fight isolation as a leader. I see you as a young leader, and you need to prepare yourself for leadership." Overwhelming! Made me go back and read the book a second time with different eyes and a different view.

Political Education

You were also very much affected by the message of Martin Luther King when he came here and spoke at Berkeley. Tell us a little about that.

Martin Luther King had assumed an incredible role. He had mounted the podium at Riverside Church in New York and made a historic speech. He stood up and opposed America's involvement in Vietnam and had the audacity, the courage, and the vision to raise his voice in the name of peace. He came to the University of California at Berkeley because after that speech he was criticized from whites and blacks, blacks thinking he had detracted from the Civil Rights Movement, many whites thinking, you know, the audacity of this man to challenge American foreign policy. It's un-American! Well he came to the University of California to speak to his critics. There were twenty-five or thirty thousand people who came to Sproul Hall. I was just a young guy near the back of the crowd, but with so much pride that tears came to my eyes just to see this extraordinary person command twenty-five thousand people with his eloquence, with his courage, and with his vision.

He made many, many statements, and whenever he spoke I used to get a notebook and write them down. One of the statements he made there was that there are two kinds of leaders, one who waits until the consensus is formed and then runs swiftly in front of the consensus to be the leader. And the second is the one who has the audacity to go out and mold and shape the consensus. And he said, I am from the latter. And that impressed me very much. The second point that he made, that just made sense out of all the movements to me, was that peace is more than simply the absence of war, it is the presence of justice. And those two comments together were significant in shaping the philosophical basis of my politics and the way I had to approach the politics of my life.

I want to quote you here on what you say in your book about King, an additional point. "King understood that if communities could step beyond the confines of their own pain and see how that pain manifested itself in other communities, larger political forces could be spawned. In order to achieve this objective he understood that a leader had to assume the responsibility for the knowledge he or she possesses. One part of that responsibility is to pass it on, to be an educator and to explain how pain is transcendent of color or race. The other part of the responsibility is to take risks in trying to bring people to this understanding."

I just thought that that was his magnificence, his eloquence. First of all, he understood the sophistication of coalition politics and the need to move beyond it.

That point -- peace is more than the absence of war, it's the presence of justice -- it meant that everybody's movement, that every effort to challenge injustice was a significant effort, and that if you brought people together challenging injustice, that that could allow you to develop the kind of broad-based power that could bend the political will toward justice and toward your objective. ctivists honor dellums for his efforts in obtaining reparations for japanese americans illegally detained during ww ii.

Assuming the responsibility for the knowledge you have once you see injustice, once you understand pain, you cannot walk away from that responsibility. Once you see the harm that's being done, you no longer can have the excuse of ignorance. And once you know, it seems to me that you then have to assume the responsibility of that knowledge. I believe that the overarching responsibility of a leader and a person in political leadership is to be part of the educative process, to bring people along with you. The demagogues don't change the world, it's educators who are willing to contribute to the discourse, to attempt to inspire a broader range of people to participate and to be involved. And when he said that the other kind of leader is the leader that's willing to go out to shape the consensus, what he was saying is you have to be willing to risk. You've got to be willing to walk out there. You can't play it safe, you can't wait until the consensus is formed and say, hey folks I'm leading. To be a leader means to be willing to take the risks of controversy.

I would go even further, that in those moments of controversy, when you take those kinds of risks to step out there to articulate an unpopular idea or an unpopular cause, if you help people understand why it's there, sometimes the hot light of controversy is focused upon you, and my view is that in those rare moments, when the hot light of attention is focused upon you in those moments of controversy, those are the moments when large numbers of people tend to focus, because they focus on controversy. Those are the moments when you have to step forward and be part of the educative process, take the risk. You can't be afraid of controversy, you have to figure out how to use controversy in a positive way to advance the ideas that you're talking about, to further educate human beings, to further respect the fact that if people are confronted with information, then at the end of the day more often than not, people will arrive at the appropriate place. But you've got to get people on the same page with a shared sense of knowledge. If you and I don't share a base of knowledge it's very difficult for us to find places that we can come together. ellums getting arrested during a demonstration against u.s. policy in haiti

I get the sense from your growing up years, from your family, from your mentors, you understood the importance of the dignity of the individual, whoever he was. And as I read your beautiful memoirs, I'm left with the sense that that empowered you to understand the dignity of ideas.


Do you agree with that? Comment on that.

I think at the beginning of the day it starts with you as the individual, your sense of your own comfort, your own confidence. As I said earlier in our conversation, my mother and my father, my grandmother, my uncle and other people in the community helped instill that in me. So I think it all starts initially with where you are. If you're comfortable with who you are, then you can look out and see someone else's humanity. And, by virtue of them reinforcing my humanity, it allowed me to see other people's dignity as human beings, as people of worth and value. That's how I grew up. From there, at some point along the way I recognized, in King's contribution, other people's contributions, that at the end of the day it really doesn't have anything to do with personalities. It is the magnificence of ideas. Individuals come and go, but it's ideas that ultimately must prevail, ideas that ultimately must transcend.

I used to say to people, in my travels through life I've met some wonderful human beings but I've never met a perfect person. But I have embraced what I've perceived to be perfect ideas. And ultimately, that's what we have to grapple with. All of us, at one level or another, have feet of clay. All of us. There are no perfect human beings. We all have flaws, we all have our difficulties, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. We all have our moments of courage. We also have our moments of cowardice and fear. It's not about that. So I don't believe in the cult of personality, although I respect human beings and respect people, because that's the nature of life, engaging with other people. But it's ideas that must ultimately bring us together, it's not coming together around a person, because people come and go. People have strengths and weaknesses. We're disappointed or not disappointed. But ultimately it's ideas that can allow us to continue to move forward. And that's what I think was the beauty of my family, that was the beauty of Martin Luther King. It was the power of ideas that propelled me forward.

Even in the Movement, when I talk about this generation, the generation of young people in the sixties, I was inspired. Other people heard a strident sound, but I heard a chorus, I heard music, I heard brilliance and nobility and principles in the ideas of peace and justice and equality and fair play and all these things. So I didn't get caught up in the stridency, I tried to get caught up in the ideas. I said, "Wow! Who could fight these ideas?" No matter how stridently they're being articulated, if you move beyond the stridency and focus on the ideas, those are the overarching, transcending things. So at times when I felt weak, at times when I felt discomfort, at times when I searched and questioned, "Why am I doing this? Can I really survive this? Can I really live through this? Am I big enough for it?" In those moments when I was scared to death, "Am I doing the right thing?" I grabbed hold to the idea and just kept walking forward because I said "This idea is perfect, and if I stay true to this idea I can get through this moment."

Politics as a Vocation

Your goals in life were to go off and get a Ph.D. after you had gotten an M.A. in social work, but you were caught up by the Movement and were chosen by the Movement to be its voice, really.

Yes. And it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. As a matter of fact, when I came home at 3:00 a.m. in the morning from a meeting where I had been drafted to be a candidate for the Berkeley City Council, and I was a psychiatric social worker, for the next week I literally stayed in a fetal position for five or six days, called into my job deathly ill, you know with that voice that many of us use: [feebly] "I'm sorry, I can't come to work." Because I was overwhelmed by this idea that people wanted me to be in public life. I agonized over this. And then I finally went to my friend and I said, "Look, I love you, and I love you guys, but this is what you want for me, this is not what I want for me. I want my life back. I don't want to be in public life."

"It's too late man!" It was at that point that he said "There's no way, you're the guy. It's done. That process can never be put back together. Everybody's expecting you to go out there and run." ellums children eric, piper, and brandy campaigning in 1970.

So I had to suck it up and say "Well, let me give it my best and then pray we lose." Well, that was thirty-one years that I didn't lose, and so I ended up putting thirty-one years of my life in an odyssey in public life that was not something that I really chose to do. Again, the door opening up for someone saying, "Have you ever thought about going back to school to get a Ph.D.?" For my generation, for me, that was like saying, are you willing to go to Mars?

And then suddenly this door opening, because I loved ideas, I was fascinated by the ability to learn [that I got] from my family, as I talked about earlier. The ability to evolve, to grow, the grapple with ideas, to gather greater information, greater knowledge, and impart that was something that motivated me highly. I didn't want to be the guy out front raising hell. I wanted to be the guy in the back room when people said, "Well, how are we going to address the problems of poverty?" I wanted to be the guy writing the policy ideas. I had never had any idea that I would be the guy out front that would end up spending thirty-some years of my life in public life. It may seem romantic now in the year 2000, but in the sixties it was a compelling idea to respond to the responsibility of the call the serve.

When you were at Cal, you got a Masters in psychiatric social work, and I think you even say somewhere that you wanted to be a black Sigmund Freud.


Did these skills that you acquired in social work become useful as you went to Washington to do politics?

Absolutely. In the school of social work, one of the factors that was absolutely reinforced was the ability to listen, because the whole premise of social work is to hear, to listen, to understand, to totally focus, to block everything else out and to listen, to hear people. That was an important skill. That was an important skill, listening to people in the community in town meetings, in the streets. It was also important to sit there as a subcommittee chairman or full committee chairman and block out all of my other frustrations and worries and totally focus on what's being said, totally focus on what's going on. It almost gave me a leg up. And many of my colleagues, many of whom didn't necessarily agree with me, would come up and say "You know, the one thing that I place a great value on, why I respect you?" And I said, "What?" They said, "You're the one person in these chambers that, if nobody else is listening, you're listening." Because in that training, in transcending from listening as a social worker to listening as an elected official, and in the discourse and the debate in the Congress, I figured out that the highest accolade that I could pay my adversary was to give that person my undivided attention. Many of my colleagues would have staff people write speeches for them. I rarely had that, I said, because my adversary will always give me my best speech if I'm willing to listen.

The other thing about social work: social work is talking about being non-judgmental, so it allowed me to be in the process, not judging other people but to judge ideas rather than to judge other people. And the notion of the dignity of the human being: even people who are in the most impoverished of circumstance or in the most psychotic of episodes are still dignified human beings. And that is very important. I happen to think that social work training is an amazing baseline for people going into public life, because I don't believe that you can be a reactionary social worker. That's an ...



I noticed in your book an amusing point that shows us what you were up against. One incident comes at the beginning of your career, and the other at the end.

When you were elected, the then-vice president, Spiro Agnew (soon to be indicted for criminal acts), attacked you as some horrendous radical from Berkeley, and you used the attack, in your own words, to define yourself. "If it is radical to oppose the insanity and the cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it is radical to oppose racism ..." and so on. So that you turned his words around to an affirmative definition of what you stood for and not what he said you stood for.

Then at the end of the career, toward the end of your term in Washington, from the center left, Ted Koppel on ABC News had you on [the show] and Koppel was saying that you were anti-military. And again you took to the floor to say, "That depends on your definition of anti-military. If what you mean by anti-military is that I oppose the utilization of our military to deal with problems I see as non-military in nature, then yes." And so on. So again and again you've turned around the words that people used against you.

Yes, because if I was going to survive, I couldn't let other people define who I was. It's important for you to define who you are, rather than to allow other people to define you. We tend to use words in this society without ever saying what those words mean. So for Vice President Agnew to say, "This is a radical who needs to be purged from American politics" -- now, for me to say I'm not a radical -- I don't even know what he meant by that. So here's press from all over the world, again, the hot light of controversy, don't be afraid of the moment, step up into the moment and use that moment to be educative. So that allowed me to say, not to defend myself from Agnew's attack, it allowed me to define myself to millions of people who wanted to know, "What is this Ron Dellums? Who is this 'radical' guy?" To say, "Well, if it's radical to do this, thus and so." And then people said, "Well, okay. If that's radical, that's cool. Maybe I'm a radical as well." If you speed it up, remember when then President Bush ran against Michael Dukakis and he leaned in and he said, "You liberal, you card-carrying liberal of the ACLU," and Michael Dukakis began to defend himself, and for the rest of the campaign he had allowed Bush to define who he was and he was on the defense, rather than stepping forward and saying, "If what you mean by liberal is...." Which [would have] allowed him to say to the American people what he stood for.

And in the second instance --

Ted Koppel.

Yes, and there's a big promo for the American people: "Did you know that the most anti-military, radical peace-nik ever elected to Congress is on the verge of becoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee?" So I said, "Look, why are you making me the bogeyman?" And then my assumption was that here's a guy who likes words, who sees himself as a very intelligent human being, so I went straight at that strength and I said, "Anti-military is a non-sequitur." Pregnant moment of silence. "What do you mean?" That allowed me to define, not allow him to make the assumption that there's a consensus of what anti-military means. We just use these labels and people start ducking from the labels. I say, "What am I ducking about? I am equal to you intellectually, I am equal to you as a human being. I respect you, you respect me. And in an honest discourse in a free and open society, I have to have the right to step up and define who I am. What gives you the right to define who I am? I am not here to judge you, who are you to judge me? And if we're going to deal with each other in a free and open society with a legitimate exchange of ideas in the marketplace, then I cannot put myself in a second-class role to you to allow you to assume the capacity to even think that you could judge me. So if I'm not going to judge you and you don't judge me, now there are two equals in discourse. So I don't accept the labels that you place upon me. And if there are other people out there who are wondering what all these labels are about, let me tell you who I am." I'm not allowing this guy to define me, because you can sit here for a hundred years and you will never hear me characterize the other guy, because I don't believe in that kind of politics.

Political Career

Now you come to Congress, the radical from "Berzerkeley," to quote what was said. And you set about, over the course of your career, acting on these values and these principles on some of the major issues of our time. Let's talk a little about them and also your philosophy. You believed that all that you said about respect and dignity had to be applied to your adversaries in Congress, even on the conservative side of the aisle, and that in showing them that you could respect them they would come to respect you, and then you could argue about the issues.


But part of what was involved was learning the process, learning the details, the rules of the institution. Tell us a little about that.

I come to Congress with this incredible mantle, this tremendous burden --"Afro-topped, bell-bottomed, radical black dude from Berkeley wins election." So that's what I had to carry. I said, "If I allow this process to marginalize me as a gadfly, five hundred thousand people who are counting on me to make significant and important, often life-and-death decisions that affect them, their children, and their children's children into the future, will be diminished. So I cannot allow myself to be marginalized, otherwise I'm allowing half a million people to be marginalized. I'm allowing movement and beauty and nobility and principle to be marginalized, to be trivialized. So if I'm carrying this burden, if I'm carrying this responsibility, the weight of controversial ideas, I've got to figure out how to not be a controversial person. Because a controversial person carrying controversial ideas is a double strain. So let me get myself out from under this. If people begin to see my personhood, that I'm a multidimensional human being, that I'm prepared to deal with them substantively, then we take Ron Dellums off the table, because Ron Dellums is irrelevant. It's the power of ideas. Now let's you and I talk about these ideas." I said alright, that's one thing.

Secondly, I was a pretty good, jumping-up-and-down community activist. Well, did people just send me to Washington to change the venue of my jumping up and down? Or did they send me to Washington to become the best progressive representative that I could possibly be? And I said, they put me in the national legislature, I've got to try to learn how to become the best legislator I can. I could have kept carrying protest signs back in Berkeley, but they sent me twenty-five hundred miles away to do something different. So I sat there hour after hour to listen, to learn how to handle myself on the floor, to take note about what members of Congress, when they stepped into the well, could command the attention of my colleagues, what were their characteristics, what made them be able to command attention? How did this process really work on a formal level and on an informal level? I became both a participant and a student.

There were times when I had to stay up to 3:00 and 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning reading briefing books because I said I have to try to become the best that I can be, because if I allow these people to pat me on the head and see me as simply a rhetorical human being who is without substance and without depth, that they could put me on the wall and that's where I'd be for the next twenty years. And I said no, I've got to be able to come off that wall, try to bring dignity to the movements that I'm representing, to the causes that I'm representing, and to bring dignity to the constituency that I'm dealing with. And if that meant that I had to work harder than everybody else, then it was important. So that when Harry Kreisler turned on the television to watch a debate on the floor of Congress, you could see that your representative is well prepared, he's doing his job.

Not an ego trip, it's just that I have to do that in order to make sure that, coming from the left and coming from a progressive perspective, and coming from Berkeley and Oakland, was not a recipe for disaster, nor was it a definition of a shallow and superficial human being with superficial ideas. So I did have to learn how to master the process, and I did have to learn how to master the arguments.

I remember one day I came off the floor -- as a quick little vignette -- I came off the floor and I had given a speech about human priorities. And one of my colleagues walked up to me and he said, "You speak brilliantly about the human priorities," he said, "but Mr. Dellums, you're very naïve." And he patted me on the back. And I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You don't understand the Soviet threat. You don't understand the communist menace. You don't understand the national security problems we have." And when he walked away I went home and I said, no one will ever be able to do that again.

And so I got in bed with the books, with the missiles and the bombs and the force structure and the national security, so I'd learn, so I could walk on the floor of Congress and say, "Would the gentleman yield?" And the people would say, "Wow, you don't want to debate this guy, because he's ready." Again, having nothing to do with me, having nothing to do with my ego, but having to do with the fact that I realized somewhere along the way that I became in that institution the personification of these movements and these struggles from the sixties that were emanating from this community, and that I had a solemn responsibility to carry that forward to the maximum extent that I could.

There were many times when I would sit in my office late at night after being shouted down on the floor, in the dark when my staff was home, sitting there in my office just saying, whatever power that's larger than me please give me strength to survive, because I don't know if I can handle all of this. Just to get up and go back out and keep my head up, when there was a tremendous effort to knock all the starch out of me as a human being. I said, I've got to figure out how to get beyond the limitations of my own personhood to survive this, because people are counting on me.

And you did make a difference. Let's look at the MX and the B-2. Both were unsuccessful because of your efforts, and in the case of the MX, it was not just learning the details of this new weapon system which would have greatly escalated the arms race with the Soviet Union, but it also involved going to the people, and to people who were not your constituents, and educating them. In one instance, as part of your successful efforts to defeat the MX, you actually went to see the head of the Mormon church ... ellums speaking to a washington dc anti-mx missile rally

Fascinating experience.

... in his inner sanctum. And it was there, in talking with him, that you applied the lessons that you just described to us in Oakland in educating about the technicalities of the MX. Tell us about that.

Well, thank you.

We were way out in front of everybody on the MX. We understood the fallacies of the "window of vulnerability" and that our fixed-base missiles would become vulnerable to Soviet attack, and that they would launch their weapons. And my argument was, there's no such thing as a vulnerable individual leg of our nuclear triad: any Soviet planner would look at one leg but have to look at the other two surviving legs and know that if they attacked that we could respond, inflicting such incredible damage that life as we know it on the planet would be ended. And therefore the whole assumption upon which the need to build a mobile survivable force [was predicated] was fallacious. Well, initially [the response to] that argument was, "Here's that Berkeley radical way-out idea." But that whole notion became the central point that eventually brought down the MX missile. We suddenly were out in front. But one day I said "Look, they have decided they're going to deploy this weapon system in Utah. Let's go to Utah and talk to the most powerful people in Utah, the Mormon Church. And we set up an interview. And I'm probably the first, maybe the only, I don't know, maybe somebody came later. But at that particular ... I'm sitting there thinking I'm probably the first black person in the history of America to ever be in this room with this guy. And I sat down with him ...

This was Spencer Kimble, the head of the church.

Absolutely. And I went to see him and I said, "Look, I appreciate the audience. Thank you very much. I want to share these thoughts and ideas with you." I walked him through the arguments that were in support of this so-called mobile, survivable system and why I challenged that. And I knocked down every argument. He sat there and listened to me as we walked through the arguments, and then I said, "Now, these folks want to put this weapon system in your state." And I talked about all of the potential vulnerabilities that that gave him, because now, this mobile system was even more threatening to the Soviet Union because it was mobile, [we] would be moving it all around, and if we got into that kind of exchange, this is the first place that would go. I said, "So, sir, not only is this a fallacious argument--" and I'd walked him through the argument, "--this is also dangerous for you and your folks--" [invoking] his self interest so that he could engage. And I said, "--and I came here with the honest belief that if we could get on the same page and share the same amount of knowledge, maybe you and I could come to the same place, which is this is not a system that we ought to have. This system is frightening, it's unnecessary, it's expensive, and it's dangerous. And I believe that if you decided to stand up and say, through your church, that this is wrong, it would end this system. You have a powerful voice in this state, you have a powerful voice in the body politic." And it actually worked.

It wasn't that I was the only person, but I played my little role. We all have our moments, we all have these little roles. You can't get caught up in thinking you alone changed the world, but when the moments come and you step up to those moments to be faithful, the show up for the battle, sometimes there are unanticipated consequences. What I couldn't envision was whether he'd be with me or not. But they ended up, a short time down the road, calling a press conference opposing the deployment of the MX missile for the very reasons that we talked about. So for an African American guy from Berkeley, California, to go to the Mormon Church ... again, that was also coalition building, the need to reach out beyond the people who totally agree with us. That's the first level of coalition. The other challenging part of coalition building is to reach beyond the people who agree with you, to see if you can, in the process of shared information, can begin to create an environment or help shape an environment that would allow a flow from shared information to shared ideas and hopefully shared positions.

One other thing while I'm on that.

I remember one of my colleagues from east Texas. I had just spoken on the MX missile. Usually, when we got up to talk about these matters, all the conservatives would walk off the floor, "Well, the guy's doing his Berkeley thing." So after I finished I sat down and this guy steps up to me and he sits down and he said, "I'm Marvin Leath of Texas." He had never spoken to me, ever. He said, "I just want to tell you something. I just made a mistake." And I didn't know where he was coming from. He said, "You know what mistake I made? Usually when you talk, I go get a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette, you know, we leave the floor, you do your thing." He said, "But today, I made a mistake, and the mistake was, I said 'Let me stop and listen and let me hear what this guy's really saying.'" And he said, "I've made a mistake, and I just wanted to come sit down next to you and tell you that's the finest exposition on the MX missile I ever heard." That turned into a lifelong friendship, that turned into an invitation a week or so later to Killeen, Texas, to his constituency, and having me before a major audience in his constituency saying, "I know you want to know why this good old redneck from Texas has black ultra-left guy from Berkeley in my district, but first of all I love him, he's my friend, and that's important, but he also has something very important to say that we need to understand."

He stopped for a moment to listen. He got beyond that one dimension. We then shared a base of information, and in sharing a base of information we were able to come to the same position: the MX missile didn't make sense.

Another area where these -- we'll call them the "Dellums Oakland principles" -- were applied was on the issue of South Africa. And there you introduced the first legislation for sanctions in '74.

Actually it was early '72.

Early '72. And you played an instrumental role in the ultimate passage of that legislation and to the end of the Apartheid regime, to the extent that America was impacting on that process. When you finally met Nelson Mandela, whom you brought to Oakland when he came to the United States, Mandela said to you, "I've heard much of you. You gave us hope. We know of your good works." Talk a little about how that South African experience brings together all these principles that we have been talking about. ellums with nelson mandela

Often when you step forward to advocate, put a proposition before the public, enter it into the public discussion, the first thing people ask is, "Do you think you're going to succeed? Do you think this will work? Do you think this will be effective? Do you think you have a snowball's chance in whatever to win?" And I never tried to answer that question, because I said I would leave that to others and I would leave that to history, because at the end of the day we cannot control events, we cannot control outcome.

But I always believe that there are two factors over which we all have control: our fidelity, our faithfulness to our ideas, number one. You can control that, whether you're going to be faithful to the idea. And the second thing you can control is whether you show up for the struggle, whether you will show up for the fight.

The United States Congress was getting ready to debate an eleventh-hour bill on the floor, big sanction bill, in 1986. And it was a compromise version of sanctions, but at the grassroots level, among people in the movement, people were calling for American disinvestment of corporations from South Africa as a major way of bringing pressure, to take the economic support from South Africa. Well, fidelity and showing up for the fight, right? Never knowing, unanticipated, unforeseen consequences. I showed up for the fight, they gave us one hour to debate the Dellums Amendment and the nature of the substitute. At the end of the hour we figured we'd go down in defeat. Maybe we'd get a hundred and fifty votes, we could call it a moral victory. From the left we brought pressure, we redefined the center. But a drama unfolded. "The vote now occurs on the amendment offered by the gentleman from California, Mr. Dellums. All in favor?" "Aye!" There were more Democrats on the floor so we screamed aye loudly. Few Republicans, "no." "In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it." Well, for a brief moment I was going to have a psychological victory. At least we won for a second, because someone was going to call for a record vote and we'd lose. So the Chair's going, "I said, the ayes have it." Like, wake up, somebody, this is not the script! Who's going to call for a record vote? ellums with bishop desmond tutu

Well, the Democrats wouldn't call for a record vote because I'm standing there and they're giving me the psychological moment. They knew that the Republicans would call, because they were opposed to this notion of disinvestment. A young Republican, Mark Soljander, is governing the bill. He made a decision in the quiet recesses of his mind that changed the course of history. He decided not to ask for a record vote. And suddenly the Chair was saying, "The ayes have it, the ayes have it. And the amendment carries." And everybody was saying, "Ron, you won." And I almost fainted on the floor. Because I had no idea that we would win, had no idea.

We could not control events, we could not control the outcome. But we could control being faithful and we could control showing up for the fight. And by exercising those two responsibilities, unenvisioned consequences: this guy made a decision. At the end of it he walked up to me and he said, "I made you a hero for a moment Ron." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "We didn't like the Democrats' proposal anyway. I respect you, but we might as well let the most radical proposal go through. It's going to die. It'll die aborning. It'll never see the light of day. It'll never be picked up in the Senate. So I made you a hero for a moment, but that's the end of it." And I looked at him and I said, "You know, I'm not sure you're right. Maybe we'll have the last laugh," I said, "because there's a political movement around the country, the anti-Apartheid movement, and tomorrow morning, every newspaper in America on the front page, every TV, every radio, is going to say, 'House of Representatives passed disinvestment bill, strikes blow at the Apartheid system in South Africa.'" I said, "You know something about movement and people? People are strengthened and buoyed by success, by victory, and rather than killing this bill, you have breathed hope and energy into the movement. And I believe that, though your colleagues control the Senate, they are now going to come under greater pressure, because the movement is going to step up, because nothing succeeds like success." I said, "Rather than killing this bill, my friend, maybe we'll have the last laugh. I believe that you have done just the reverse. You have stimulated movement, a level below which the House of Representatives will never fall," and that is history; they never went below that again. "And you've placed pressure on the United States Senate that will force them into this fray, and they're going to pass a sanction bill." And the rest is history.

So showing up, being faithful, learning all of the factors. If you're going to be there, be willing to pose the alternative, put it all out there. You have no idea what may happen. But if you're not faithful and you don't show up, there's one thing that you can guarantee, that your ideas will never see the light of day, that there's never any possibility of winning. That's why I don't believe in cynicism, that I think at the end of the day it's not cynics that change the world. You have to be hopeful and optimistic and upbeat. And you have to believe that you have a responsibility to step up, put your ideas on the table, and see where they go.

One of the issues that brought you to Washington was the Vietnam War. And you've lived with the lessons of that conflict, but there's a new world out there in which a new kind of intervention might be necessary for humanitarian purposes. I know that you've thought about it. Let's talk briefly about that. Help us understand how in politics one has to learn things, but not necessarily apply them in a rigid way.


I think there's no intellectual rigor in being narrowly focused ideologically, or to stay rooted in past ideas. The word "progressive" means to progress, to constantly think, to be in constant motion, constant evolution, constantly reassessing. With that as a backdrop, the Vietnam War occurred during the period of the Cold War, so we could apply, whether it's left, right, or center, a Cold War analysis to the American intervention: fighting the Cold War, East versus West, us versus communism in the proxy wars that we waged in other places -- Vietnam being a classic case in point. A Cold War. So suddenly the Berlin Wall comes down, the Cold War is over. The Warsaw Pact no longer exists. The Soviet Union dissipates. The Russians have an election, actually elect a president, something beyond our wildest imagination, what most of us never could have perceived. Without a shot being fired the whole thing crumbled. And suddenly we're now in a new era, so significant that we didn't even have a name to call it. We called it the post - Cold War era. ellums with mikhail gorbachev

My view was, here's a magnificent opportunity to accept both a challenge and an opportunity to change the world in ways that we could not have perceived just a year, two years, five years ago. But we can't continue to view the world through the lenses of the Cold War, because the Cold War is now over. We no longer can see the world in bipolar terms, us versus them, East versus West. You know, the eagle versus the bear. Now suddenly it's a post - Cold War environment. Along comes Bosnia, for example, along comes Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti.

I would suggest Somalia was probably the first test of our post - Cold War "intervention." I felt very strongly about that, because here's America's first opportunity in the context of a post - Cold War world to play the role of peacekeeper. And many people, even many of us on the left, continued to view the notion of American troops in some other place through that narrow prism of the Cold War, because they never took those lenses off. And my point was that if we could challenge the right, if we could challenge the "militarists," as it were, to take off the lenses of the Cold War, then we from the left had to do exactly the same thing. We had to be intellectually honest enough to see that the world had changed and that in that regard, old paradigms, old concepts, old ideas no longer made sense. It's refreshing to be able to see new potential, new beginnings, new opportunities.

So Somalia, in my mind's eye, was an important test case to play the role of peacekeeper. Bosnia was an important place. But many people said, "Oh, my God, we're going into Bosnia. This is going to be another Vietnam." And it required me to have some courage at that point. People said, "Well, Ron, you can say what you want in the Bay Area. People love you." And I said, I've never made that mistake. Never. This is not about love, that you can do what you want to do. I'm not a tin god. People elect me because we respect each other and because there's a shared view of knowledge. The true test of whether I'm a leader is going to be at this moment, because I've got to fly against conventional wisdom. Because people are saying, we don't want to go into a Vietnam. And my point was that look, this is a new period. This is a different kind of intervention.

If two groups of people who have been warring and killing each other, fathers killing mothers, mothers killing fathers, everybody killing each other's children and aunts and uncles and grandparents suddenly finally come to the table and sketch out some very shaky peace of paper that is called a peace pact, maybe for a while until they're able to trust each other, because if you've been killing my family for a long time I'm not going to fall in love with you overnight just because we sat down at the table to work out some kind of agreement that says we're going to try to achieve peace. So if we're really, truly peace activists, does that just mean carrying a symbol with a headband on and going around and saying, peace, peace? Or are we willing then to get muddied up enough to stand between two warring factions to say, "I appreciate that you've stopped the shooting and the killing and you've separated. And maybe we need to stand here for a while until you begin to develop the confidences and start to work on the underlying factors that created the need to kill and shoot each other in the first place." That to me was a different challenge, a different opportunity, and we had to see that not through the prism of the Cold War. We had to see it through the opportunities that presented themselves in the post - Cold War environment. And I believe that these are new kinds of things.

As I looked at it further I said, okay, what must guide us through this period?

What are the principles that ought to guide our "intervention" in this post - Cold War new period of different kinds of intervention as the peacekeeper, the peacemaker? Take no sides, make no enemies. That must be our new mantra. Take no sides, make no enemies. If you're really going to be a peacekeeper, you're not siding. You're not looking for, as we did in the Cold War, who is the enemy, who are the bad guys. I'm on this guy's side to shoot you. No, no. Now we're peacekeepers. Make no enemies, take no sides. We are here for humanitarian purposes. We are here to help establish, help you establish a climate that will allow you to march off in the future without the need to kill and shoot each other, because we're helping to create an environment to allow you to deal with the economic, political, social, and cultural issues that gave rise to your killing in the first place. That's a very significant and very important role.

My last comment on this is, I would hope that our grandchildren would not look back on this moment and say, my God, they had a chance to change the world, and rather than paint bold strokes across the canvas of time, because of the their temerity they tinkered around on the margins, they didn't take full advantage of taking the world into the twenty-first century with wisdom and dignity and a sense of purpose.


If students were watching this interview, this fascinating conversation about your political education and your political journey, what lessons would you hope that they might draw from the life of Ron Dellums and the extraordinary work he's done?

Well, I appreciate the compliment.

I would think that I would say to young people, do not get caught up in the cynicism of this moment. You have to believe, in the very essence of your being, that your active involvement with other human beings can change the course of events. Don't buy into this overstated notion of cynicism that things can't change, things are the way they are, politicians are corrupt, frustrating human beings. People compromise, people sell out, people are corrupt because they choose to be, that's not inherent in the process. And your active involvement and participation in it, I always believe, can be a cleansing process, it can inform the decision. The extent to which you opt out of the process, the extent to which you become an armchair spectator, the extent to which you allow your cynicism to deny your need to grapple with, and your sense that you can change the nature of your circumstances -- it's in overcoming all of that, that you can do anything.

So if Ron Dellums is here to say anything, it's not being a celebrity. It's like I used to tell young people when they came to my office. I said, if I wanted to be a celebrity I would have taken rock guitar lessons and become a rock star, made a lot of money, signed autographs, and I'll be your celebrity all day. But I'm not a celebrity. This is not Hollywood. This is not New York. This is Washington, D.C. I'm your representative. I'm here to grapple with you eyeball to eyeball. Don't look up to see the celebrity, look straight at me to see the person that is responsible for helping to make decisions that affect your lives on a daily basis. The only difference between us is age and area of responsibility, but we're all equals in this. This is a democracy.

The second point I want to make to you is that your engagement, your involvement, your participation, can change things. Don't ever think that just because somebody went inside the process, that that going inside in some way is a corrupting factor. If there's anything that this life is trying to tell you it's that you can go in, you can fight the good fight, maintain the fidelity of your ideas, be willing to step up to the fight and engage. And you never know, you may just change the world.

Congressman Dellums, thank you very much for telling us your story and what you learned. It was a great honor to have you here today.

It was my pleasure to be here, thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.


Photos by Jane Scherr

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