When Ron Dellums ran for Congress in 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew campaigned against him. Richard Nixon’s political hitman decried Dellums as an “out-and-out radical” who would bring the protest politics of the streets to the Capitol. Dellums did not object. Indeed, when he won the election, the new congressman from California told the cheering crowd: “One person I forgot to thank–my public relations agent, Spiro T. Agnew.”
Agnew got a lot of things wrong in those days. But he was right to fret about Ron Dellums.
Within months of his arrival in Washington, Dellums became so enraged with the failure of Congress to confront the horrors of the Vietnam War that he held an unofficial hearing where US Army veterans spoke of war crimes they said had committed against the people of Vietnam. One newspaper declared, “The hearings included some of the most damning statements of American conduct in war ever heard on Capitol Hill.”
The New Left had arrived in the US House of Representatives.
For the better part of three decades (1971–98) as the congressman from a California district that included Oakland and Berkeley, Dellums was the rare member of Congress who could be honestly identified as both an activist and a statesman. After he left Congress, Dellums served four years as mayor of Oakland. Now he has died at age 82, leaving a legacy, in the words of his former aide and successor, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, as “a great warrior and statesman.”
“The contributions that Congressman Dellums made to our East Bay community, the nation, and the world are too innumerable to count,” said Lee. That is certainly true. But, surely, the list includes his battles against illegal and immoral wars, as well as the military-industrial complex that he fought to constrain as a leader of congressional campaigns against the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber program and the MX Missile project.
As Lee is today recognized as the most ardent anti-war activist in Congress, so Dellums was in his day.
“What shaped my politics regarding war and peace was Martin Luther King Jr., the most extraordinary person that I ever heard. And when he began to talk about the issues of war and peace with such eloquence and such passion, I was drawn to that like a magnet,” Dellums recalled.
A popular community activist in the Bay Area who bridged the gap between the Black Panthers and more traditional social-service agencies, Dellums agreed to run for the Berkeley City Council in 1967 only if local Democrats would get out of his way and let him practice politics on his own terms.
“That stipulation became the major tenet of Dellums’s political career,” observed The Oakland Tribune when Dellums announced his retirement plans. Running on a radical anti-war platform in 1970, the Berkeley councilman challenged and defeated a liberal incumbent congressman in the Democratic primary.