Reflecting on the Legacy of Congressman Ron Dellums: A True People’s Warrior

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Ron Dellums was first elected to Congress in 1971, when he stood with the Panthers. Then the Marine veteran launched a Vietnam war crimes investigation and was singularly responsible for legal sanctions against South Africa. We are joined by Bob Scheer to reflect on the legacy of Congressman Ron Dellums, a true people’s warrior

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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Mark Steiner. Good to have you with us. Robert Scheer is the editor in chief of Truthdig. He’s also professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and host of KCRW’s podcast, Sheer Intelligence. For decades, Bob was the national correspondent and then columnist for The Los Angeles Times. He’s the author of numerous books, including The Great American Stickup: The Pornography of Power, and most recently, They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations Are Destroying Democracy. And Bob, welcome. Good to have you with us.

ROBERT SCHEER: Hi.

MARC STEINER: So, we are here today to talk about Ron Dellums, who passed away on Monday at eighty-two from cancer. He was probably one of the most radical revolutionary thinkers as a congressman from Berkeley, from Oakland, who just set a trend and just set a new bar for what it meant to stand for people’s rights. And Bob Scheer is with us because he has known him since 1966 when Bob ran for Congress and scared the Democrats to death because he almost won that race. So, Bob, take us back to ’66 and how you met Ron Dellums in the beginning.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah, Ron Dellums is a product of Oakland and people on the East Coast maybe don’t understand that here on the West Coast we had a very strong tradition of labor movement, the Longshoreman, we had a very strong- The Sleeping Car Porters, Ron Dellums’ uncle, there’s statue to him at the train station in Oakland because he was right up there with A. Philip Randolph organizing The Sleeping Car Porters. And remember, that was the segregated the activity, you couldn’t be Black and be a conductor, you were relegated to being a porter. But these guys traveled all over the country and they were really at the heart of the early civil rights movement before Martin Luther King was even around, and Ron Dellums’ uncle was very involved in that.

So, Dellums grew up in a tradition of pro-labor, pro-civil rights awareness in Oakland. There had been a tremendous migration of Black people from the South as a result of the war to work in the defense industry, to be in the military and so forth. And when I met Dellums, he had already been in the Marines. He knew quite a bit about the military and he was a very dynamic person and he was working for some, they called themselves the Young Turks, a guy who was challenging some of the political establishment here, certainly the white establishment was quite conservative and then also part of the Black establishment that kind of got settled in its ways.

And when I met him, and he describes this scene in Berkeley and Oakland and East Bay quite vividly in some of his speeches. He said there was a connection between different movements, there was a beginning, first of all of the the peace movement, of the strong civil rights movement. But there also was the women’s movement, the gay movement and so forth. You go down the list. There were the Brown Berets awakening because of what had happened with the farm workers and development of a consciousness about that, and as Dellums describes it quite eloquently, “We all have to listen to each other.” We were in close proximity and we heard each other’s messages.

And I remember hearing Dellums speak the first time when he was pushing as the candidate, and I said, “Hey, you’re better than these other guys, why aren’t you the candidate?” And he didn’t forget that. On the other hand, I think- I had already been in Vietnam for Ramparts magazine, I’ve been there several times, I’ve written about it, and my big issue was, “end the war in Vietnam, it’s genocidal, it’s madness, but also the money being spent and the lives being wasted, there were lives being wasted from Berkeley, from Oakland, East Bay, but also the money.” We weren’t going to have a poverty program. Lyndon Johnson had promised a poverty program but the money was not available. Well, Dellums took that message, I must say, and he ran with it.

He got his own candidates, espoused those views and we just developed a relationship of respect and not just as individuals but the people who were around his movement, mostly from the Black community, and the people in my campaign, who were mostly antiwar activists, more centered in Berkeley, it was a great teaching moment. And it didn’t stop. And I came dangerously close to winning, at that point already the editor of Ramparts magazine, I had a full time job editing this publication. And I was one of those who urged Dellums to run for Congress next time, and he ran for the- we backed him running for the city council of Berkeley. He won, and then four years after that in ’70, he ran for Congress and won.

And I must say, I’ve interviewed a lot of politicians in my life, a lot of people, but Dellums was the real deal. Dellums was a person of incredible conviction, never, never even thought about selling out. If it was true, he was going to push it. And one of the first things he did- you know, people, usually they’re, “Oh, now I’m in Congress, how do I play this game, how do I sell out?” That’s not what Dellums did, he went back to Washington and he opened an exhibit in an annex next to his office of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. I mean, it was shocking to people that omebody in the House of Representatives would actually talk about what the U.S. was doing with the carpet bombing and everything else in Vietnam. And he called them on it and he never backed down.

He was incredibly important to the whole civil rights movement. And I don’t think that we’ve ever had- I have great respect for Barbara Lee, who replaced Dellums when he went on to be mayor of Oakland, and Barbara Lee from my money is about the best person you’ve got in Congress right now, and she worked for Dellums. So I think that seat that I failed to take over, and the whole reason I was running was we had an incumbent who was called a Democratic Party liberal, but he wouldn’t come out against the war and he wouldn’t break with Lyndon Johnson, an issue a lot of Democrats have failed on when they’re in power. And this guy Cohelan wouldn’t do that, so we got courage, Dellums to run. And he was- I think he and Barbara Lee, that seat been better represented than any seat in the Congress, frankly.

MARC STEINER: So, if we talk about Ron Dellums and what he meant for this country and for the U.S. Congress, I mean he, as you said, he never bent on his principles, though he also knew how to talk to people who he didn’t agree with. His demeanor, the power of his speech, the way he stood for his principles and the way he could cross the aisle when needed, I mean there’s a real lesson in how Ron Dellums served his people and served us in America that I think we should not get lost in all this.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yeah, that’s why I called Dellums “the real deal.” I know when I was running for Congress, I had to give the same speech seven times a day. You kind of lose yourself.

MARC STEINER: Right.

ROBERT SCHEER: And Dellums had such a deep well of commitment, and he couldn’t fake it if he wanted to. You know, he just was going to tell you what he thought. And Congress, that impressed quite a few conservatives because you couldn’t dismiss this guy. First of all, he’d been willing to serve his country, he’d been in the Marines, he paid that price. And he was active in his community, he was not coming from some privileged background or anything. And so, whether he was in the House of Representatives or he was at a church, be it a white or Black church in Oakland or anywhere around, talking to students, talking to businesspeople, labor unions and so forth. You got the real deal. He didn’t have to, he wasn’t faking it.

And he told you how he figured it out and he made it very down to, “this is the way it’s playing out, this is what I’ve seen, and you know what, this war is criminal.” That’s why he joined with Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre to have war crimes tribunals. He supported all that and he said, “No, my government is committing war crimes, I’m going to call my government out, my government is racist in its practice and the war on poverty is not fully addressing that and I’m going to call that out.” But he was not into making enemies. He went wherever anybody would invite him. He went, and he was open with people. And so, he was that ideal progressive politician.

And we’re starting to see some now. I think Bernie Sanders had a lot of that quality. We’ve seen some people win recently. In my old neighborhood in the Bronx you’ve got a great candidate up there, actually she’s my district I grew up in. And I know you’ve had stories on her campaign. And so, we’re starting to see some really good models of progressive activity, but the key words that came out of Berkeley and Oakland back in those days was, “Don’t sell out, don’t sell out.” You know, politicians sell out routinely, people who claim to be progressive sell out routinely. And Dellums stood for- he said, “No, I come from a community we’re they’ll chop my head off if I sell out,” said “and I’m not inclined to.” And that was his great strength. And he studied the issues, he knew what he was talking about. And he didn’t back off.

He said, “Being progressive is as American as apple pie, being anti-racist is as American as apple pie, and I know America is not great because we have slavery and segregation and we’ve had needless wars and so forth. I’m going to call out my country but I’m going to work with anybody who will work with me on a progressive agenda.” And he enlisted remarkable support from conservatives. One issue that he deserves an incredible amount of credit is the ending of apartheid in South Africa. And Nelson Mandela singled out Ron Dellums as the one member of the U.S. Congress that really carried that battle at a time when Nelson Mandela was being red-baited and called a terrorist and everything else. It was Ron Dellums who really made that a huge issue.

And I happened to be in Oakland, and I was also in LA when Nelson Mandela came to speak here to fifty-five thousand people down in Oakland. I think it was closer to a hundred thousand at the Coliseum. And he mentioned, he signled Dellums, he had Dellums at his side as really maybe his main ally in the United States in educating the American people to the evil of apartheid.

MARC STEINER: I think that as we wind this down, it’s really important what you just raised, because Ron Dellums introduced the sanctions bill against South Africa, pushed it can be vetoed, overridden, and if it wasn’t for Ron Dellums, the sanctions may never taken place against South Africa. And that’s a real feat for an African-American congressman who’s very progressive and a radical thinker to have done that. That was a huge thing you were just describing, not some minor detail.

ROBERT SCHEER: Can I just make one point? And Dellums has made this point. Yes, I was one of the first individuals to actually be talking to him about Vietnam, but a year after I ran for Congress Martin Luther King went got up at Riverside Church in New York and said, “My government is the major purveyor of violence in the world today.” He said, “How can I go into a Black community, North or South,” and talk about non-violence as I do, and my government is recruiting, ordering, these people to go off and fight in a horribly unnecessary, brutal war.”

And when Martin Luther King- and Dellums gave a very powerful speech just a few years ago about this, when Martin Luther King criticized his government and broke his relation with Lyndon Johnson, a lot of the Black leadership said, “Martin,” they used those words, “stay in your lane, talk about civil rights, don’t talk about war and peace.” And Martin Luther King said, “No, you can’t do that. If we’re going to be a warlike natio, we’re going to train warriors here and we’re not going to have the resources to live in peace.” And that was his basic message very late in his life, a year before he was assassinated. And there wasn’t any person in this country more influenced by that speech, and he had said it over and over, than Ron Dellums.

Ron Dellums really picked up the legacy of Martin Luther King. Everybody else wanted to make him into a bland statue, a non-controversial. No, Martin Luther King was hounded to his death by the FBI. They sent threatening fake letters exposing him and everything, J. Edgar Hoover. And a lot of people were turning away from Martin Luther King when he was doing the War on Poverty. The one person around that was very clear on that was Ron Dellums. And he picked up that mantle as a congressman and he never forgot it.

MARC STEINER: So, before we take leave here, Bob Scheer, there’s one last piece I want to ask you which I think is really important, which is the legacy- we can look at the legacy of Ron Dellums as a congressman, as a political leader, and we can think about it as the past. But in many ways he’s the root, and then men and women like him are the root of what we’re seen today take place in our electoral system in terms of the young people and other people who are running as progressives and radicals, saying “There’s a different way of doing things.” So, Dellums’ legacy is really critical, I think, for people to understand and get as we move forward with politics in America right now. Yeah, and what is involved is being authentic with the people who support you. I’m blocking on this woman’s name who won in the Bronx. Help me here.

MARK STEINER: Ocasio-Cortez.

ROBERT SCHEER: Yes. And what she said during her campaign is, “Look, I’m from these people, I’m not going to abandon them.” And a lot of people can say that, but they don’t live up to it. She lived up in the campaign and she knocked off the number four guy in the whole Democratic Party. I know that district, I go back there all the time, I grew up in that district in the Bronx part of it and everything. And in that district, those people need help. Those people are hurting and they’ve been abandoned by the leadership of both parties. They have been betrayed not only by the Democratic leadership, the Republicans leadership, even by the mass media.

I once went back there all the way back when Jimmy Carter was president and said, “What happened to the Bronx?” The New York Times didn’t even cover it. And here we have a woman who is now going to be a congresswoman from that district who says, “Don’t forget these people.” That’s what Dellums did. He said, “Look life is hard in Oakland, it’s hard in a large part of the Bay Area and It’s hard because you’re wasting money elsewhere and you’re ignoring them and my party is ignoring them.” And Dellums never forgot that. And the real message is, again, “don’t sell out.” And Dellums was, he’s the guy. If you remember anything about Dellums, he said, “I’m never going to forget the energy, the commitment, the belief that people placed in me, and having me run for Congress and helping me win.”

And by the way, let me just say a word about Barbara Lee who replaced him, because she’s a disciple of Dellums. Barbara Lee was the one person who stood out and voted against the first Iraq war. And that was in a tribute to this district and the going to war meaninglessly. She was the one person, and people in this district here, they had bumper stickers saying Barbara Lee Speaks For Me. They used to have Ron Dellums Speaks for Me. So, taking it up to the president, if you want a model, I would say to honor Ron Dellums, honor Barbara Lee, who really has carried his torch.

MARC STEINER: Well, Bob Scheer, I want to thank you so much for helping us remember Ron Dellums and also to think about the future that he is the embodiment of for where we have to take our country and where the movement has to go. Bob, good to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us here on Real News. And I’m Marc Steiner, here for the Real News Network. Thank you so much for joining us. Keep Dellums’ dream alive.