California’s fiery former Congressman Ron Dellums dies at 82
Ron Dellums in the rotunda at City Hall in Oakland, Calif., March 12, 2009. Eric Risberg | AP

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Ron Dellums, a fiery anti-war activist who championed social justice as Northern California’s first black congressman, died July 30 from cancer, according to a longtime adviser. He was 82.

Dellums died at his home in Washington.

Ronald Vernie Dellums was born in Oakland on Nov. 24, 1935, one of two children of Vernie (a longshoreman) and Willa Terry (a beautician and government clerk) Dellums . His uncle C. L. Dellums was an organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

A former Marine who got his start in politics on the City Council of the liberal enclave of Berkeley, he defeated six–term incumbent Jeffery Cohelan to win his first election to Congress in 1970. He retired in 1998 and was later elected mayor of his native Oakland in 2006.

“He was absolutely committed to what was right and what was just and believed that you had to do whatever you could to fight for that,” said Dan Lindheim, who learned of Dellums’ death from his wife, Cynthia Dellums.

A self-identified Democratic socialist, Dellums was at the center of most major liberal movements of the 1970s and 1980s. He led the drive to sanction South Africa during apartheid, challenged U.S. entry into wars, opposed increased military spending and helped start the Congressional Black Caucus.

In a published statement of Dellums passing, the Caucus said:

“A legacy that will endure long after today’s tragic news, Ron Dellums is a profile in courage, conviction, and compassion we have all learned from over the years. As the people of Oakland can attest to, his career epitomizes the adage, ‘think globally, act locally.’ For that, we express our eternal gratitude for his willingness to speak truth to power and vow to keep that heritage alive.”

During Dellums’ first campaign for Congress in 1970, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew branded him an “out-and-out radical.”

Later in his victory speech, Dellums wryly referred to Agnew, a Republican, as his public relations agent, according to the U.S. House of Representatives’ archives. [Agnew was VP during the Nixon presidency, and was often called upon to attack the administration’s “enemies.” He was forced to resign before Nixon due to a felony charge of tax evasion.]

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a friend of Dellums, said U.S. sanctions and divestment from South Africa during apartheid would not have happened without Dellums, who pushed legislation for nearly 15 years to place economic restrictions on that nation.

Legislation didn’t pass until 1986, and Congress had to override a veto from then-President Ronald Reagan.

Dellums opposed almost every U.S. entry into military conflict during his tenure in Congress and, as head of the Congressional Black Caucus, began submitting his own version of a scaled-back military budget. He rose through the ranks of the House Armed Services Committee to become its first black chairman in 1993.

Lindheim remembered Dellums as a gifted orator with a photographic memory who could speak without notes and never needed a word of his remarks to be corrected in the Congressional Record.

Sometimes, Lindheim said, Dellums would take speech notes onto the House floor just so he didn’t intimidate his colleagues by speaking without them.

Dellums jokingly referred to himself the way his critics did — as a left-wing, anti-war, commie, pinko activist from Berkeley, Lindheim said.

Dellums retired from Congress in 1998, a move that surprised his colleagues.

“I leave with my idealism and my enthusiasm intact because, when you look around, each of us have had the privilege of walking to the floor of Congress with the total freedom to express ourselves across whatever lines divide us, to say whatever we felt was important to say. That is an incredible gift,” he said during his farewell speech.

Dellums became a lobbyist before returning to politics as mayor of Oakland in 2006. At his election celebration Dellums said, “I accept this responsibility with honor, humility, optimism and idealism,” Dellums said. “We can solve the problems of Oakland. We can be a great city.”

California U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who began as an intern in Dellums’ office and later replaced him in Congress, called him the “father of progressive politics” and someone who truly wanted “to save the world.”

“He always told us don’t measure our decisions by what is politically expedient on his behalf, but to just ask one question,” Lee said. “Is it the right thing to do?”

Barbara Russum of People’s World contributed to this article.


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