You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Remembering Ron Dellums: The Radical Congressmember Who Fought Against War, Apartheid & Poverty

Media Options

Legendary antiwar activist, former Oakland mayor and longtime Democratic Congressmember Ron Dellums of Oakland, California, died on Monday at the age of 82. A self-described socialist and radical, Dellums served in the House for 27 years, leading the congressional opposition to the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. His activism landed him on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list. Ron Dellums opposed bloated military spending throughout his career, instead pushing for increased investment in housing, healthcare and education. We remember Ron Dellums by airing part of a 2015 Democracy Now! interview with the famed congressmember.

Related Story

StoryJul 31, 2018Ron Dellums (1935-2018): Organizing for Peace Forces Us to Challenge All Forms of Injustice
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We spend the rest of the hour remembering former Democratic Congressmember Ron Dellums of Oakland, California, who died on Monday at the age of 82. Dellums was a legendary figure in Washington for leading the congressional opposition to the Vietnam War and to apartheid in South Africa. In 1970, he became the first self-described socialist to be elected to Congress since before World War II. He went on to serve in the House for 27 years. Dellums was a lifelong fierce antiwar activist who pushed for the House to conduct a probe into U.S. war crimes committed in Vietnam soon after his election in 1970. When his effort failed, Dellums held his own ad hoc war crimes hearings. His activism landed him on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list. Dellums once said, quote, “I am not going to back away from being called a radical. If being an advocate of peace, justice, and humanity toward all human beings is radical, then I’m glad to be called a radical.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ron Dellums also led the congressional opposition to U.S.-backed apartheid in South Africa, for nearly 15 years pushing legislation to ban U.S. trade and investment in South Africa.

REP. RON DELLUMS: Look at black people dying and suffering in South Africa. I ask why. We’ve dropped bombs on no one, we’ve harmed no one in the world, yet for some incredible reason, black people have suffered at an extraordinary level all over the world. And at this point, it is heightened in its intensity in South Africa. I offer the proposal today, in no paternalistic fashion whatsoever, because I’m not doing it out of a missionary spirit, because I believe taking a stand against apartheid with as much power and courage and conviction as one can is as important to the healing and the well-being of this country as it is to the healing and the well-being of people in South Africa.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In 1986, Congress finally passed Ron Dellums’s Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, but President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill. Then, in an historic move, the House and Senate overrode the veto. It was the first override of a presidential foreign policy veto in the 20th century. Four years later, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa and traveled to the United States. Dellums introduced Mandela at the Oakland Coliseum in 1990.

REP. RON DELLUMS: We made history. We went to make history, not to make headlines. We want Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa to know that we will stand shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, until apartheid is eradicated. Sisters and brothers, it is fascinating, it is historic, it is symbolic, that this son of Africa comes at this moment to remind us of the unfinished business of ending apartheid in South Africa and racism in America, sexism in America, all forms of chauvinism in America.

Let us welcome this extraordinary, beautiful black African man, one with the courage to turn to his enemy and say, “Forget the past. Let us march to the future. Let’s negotiate a new South Africa.” Let us welcome this beautiful black man with unwavering integrity, incredible principle, unwavering courage, no fear. Let us welcome a man that makes us all feel somewhat taller, a hell of a lot stronger and a whole lot more proud. Bay Area, let us welcome Nelson Mandela!

AMY GOODMAN: During his 27 years in office, Ron Dellums would oppose every major U.S. military intervention except a bill in 1992 to send troops to Somalia. In 1990, he sued President George H.W. Bush over the Persian Gulf War.

REP. RON DELLUMS: There are some of us who believe that in the context of the Persian Gulf War, it would be catastrophic and totally unacceptable. There may be other members of Congress who come to a different conclusion, but that is a political statement, and those issues get resolved in an open and honest and tough debate on the floor of the United States Congress. But what we’re saying in this lawsuit is that procedurally, the process that is granted to us under the Constitution of the United States gives Congress that authority. Some people have said, “Well, don’t you believe that this would inconvenience the president?” The Constitution is designed to inconvenience one person from taking us to war. War is a very solemn and sobering and extraordinary act, and it should not be granted to one person.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Ron Dellums opposed bloated military spending throughout his career, instead pushing for increased investment in housing, healthcare and education. Dellums retired from the House in 1998. He was succeeded by one of his staffers, Barbara Lee, who remains a leading antiwar voice in the House. After serving in Congress, Ron Dellums served one term as mayor of Oakland. In 2015, Ron Dellums spoke at a conference in Washington, D.C., titled “Vietnam: The Power of Protest.” I had a chance to interview Ron Dellums in a hallway behind the stage at the conference.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you proudest of in accomplishing on the Armed Service Committee as the chair?

RON DELLUMS: Well, you know, I don’t know if it was at the chair, but one of the things we did—John Kasich, who is now the governor of Ohio, he asked me one day—he said, “Ron, why do you oppose the MX missile?” No, the B-2 bomber. He said, “Why do you oppose the B-2 bomber?” And I looked at him. I said, “You really want to know?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “We can’t afford it. We don’t need it, we can’t afford it, and there are alternatives.” And he said, “Explain it.” So I explained it to him. He said, “I like that.” So he came back to me a few days later and said, “I would be honored to co-sponsor, on a bipartisan basis, an amendment to stop the B-2 bomber.” The Dellums-Kasich Amendment. We stopped—we did something nobody has done in modern history: We stopped a major weapon system, on a bipartisan basis, with this guy and myself. And I thought that that was a very significant thing.

Other than that, eventually winning the day to see Nelson Mandela free and to see him sworn in as president of South Africa, and having played some small role in extending the civil rights movement, the peace movement into challenging oppression in another country and helping that day come, was also a great honor for me.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you do that? What was the legislation you passed around Nelson Mandela and apartheid South Africa?

RON DELLUMS: OK, little-known history. The Congressional Black Caucus organized in 1971. Late 1971, we were meeting. I think we used to meet on Tuesday or Wednesday. And a note got passed into the CBC meeting. And we had a very significant agenda. And somebody said, “There’s a militant group of black folks from New England who are demanding”—we used to talk like that back in the day—”demanding a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus.” And so, everybody looks at me. And we have this ambitious agenda. And so they looked at me. I’m from the Bay Area, right? So, dealing with radicals and militants—they said, “Well, send Ron to the meeting. Would you be willing to go?” So I said, “Of course. I’ll be happy to go.” And John Conyers of Michigan said, “I will go with him.” So we go out. Turns out this group of people were a group of workers from New England who worked for Polaroid Corporation.

AMY GOODMAN: In Massachusetts.

RON DELLUMS: Massachusetts, Polaroid Corporation. Polaroid pictures were the pictures that blacks had to present when challenged in South Africa. So these folks came because they were uncomfortable working for a corporation that was doing business in South Africa. And they wanted—they brought a petition, and they wanted, you know, a pledge that somebody would work on a piece of legislation that would bring economic disinvestment. And I stood up in that meeting, and I shook their hand, and I said, “I would be honored to be your instrument,” having no idea that that was going to be nearly a 16-year commitment, day in and day out. OK?

And eventually, by a strange set of circumstances, which you don’t have time to go into, the House of Representatives actually passed the disinvestment bill, which then forced the Republican-controlled Senate to go further than they would have gone. And we ended up, by an even stranger set of circumstances, getting the Republicans to agree to override Reagan’s veto, because I had the right to go to conference because the House passed my version of the bill. And the Republicans passed their version of—it wasn’t disinvestment; it was a sanction bill. So they called a big meeting, and they said, “Ron, we know you have the right to go to conference with the Senate to fight for a stronger bill, but Reagan said he’s going to veto, and if one word of this bill gets changed, we cannot guarantee that we could override the veto.”

So, at a certain point, I stood up, and I said, “I respect everyone in this room. This is not about Ron Dellums. This is about South Africa. And if, by my actions to assert my prerogatives and we fight to change the bill and Reagan vetoes it, the word that will go around the world is the United States does not override the veto. That would set us back.” So I said, “I will respectfully step back.” And I withdrew my bill—and a lot of people don’t know that—and allowed the Republican bill to come to the House. They passed it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was it? What was the difference, and what was the bill that passed?

RON DELLUMS: Well, it was a sanction bill, OK? You know, it wasn’t the strongest bill, but it was veto-proof. And I heard everyone in that room, and I said, “This is not about me. It’s not about my ego, not about my pride. This is about South Africa.” OK? And I felt that if the word went out—”Senate overrides Reagan’s veto”—that that would far exceed even the dimensions of the bill. Turns out that was right, because the word that went around the world was “Congress stands up against Reagan’s veto and overrides the veto.” And it took on a significance all on its own.

So, being a progressive guy, our thought is keep introducing—you know, the center is not a static place; the center is based on who shows up for the fight. So the left had to keep showing up. So I kept bringing the bill back. Finally, two years later, the Dellums bill actually became the instrument that passed the House on a record vote, not a voice vote.

A German journalist came to see us when I was chair of armed services, and he told this story. He said his research indicated that Frederik de Klerk called Margaret Thatcher and said, “What do you think I ought to do?” To which, according to his research, Margaret Thatcher said, “The Dellums bill passed in 1986 on a fluke, but it passed again two years later on a record vote. The Democrats now control the Senate. It’s going to pass the Senate, and it’s going to become law.” To which he said, “So, what should I do?” Her response was, “Free Mandela and begin a process of negotiating a new South Africa.” So, on the way out the door, this journalist said, “Tell your boss that while his bill never became law, it hung over South Africa like the sword of Damocles.” I was proud of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question: When did you first meet Nelson Mandela? Can you describe that moment?

RON DELLUMS: I’ll never forget it. Mandela leaves South Africa, and he goes to Lusaka, Zambia, where the ANC were meeting.

AMY GOODMAN: What year?


RON DELLUMS: Yeah, when he was freed. OK. So, that morning, I get up, and I’m going, “Wow, man. I’m standing in line. I’m going to meet Nelson Mandela.” Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think I would ever lay eyes on this man, let alone to see him in person. And I had gone all over the country—”Free Mandela, free my people, free South Africa.” Never thought I’d ever see Mandela.

So I get up right there, and Bill Gray, one of my former colleagues in the Black Caucus, from Pennsylvania, he says “Mr. Mandela, I would like you to meet Congressman Dellums.” And Mandela did this Hollywood double take. And he has these big hands, because, remember, he wanted to be a heavyweight prize fighter. And this is my impression of Mandela. And he heard my name, and he goes, “Ronald Dellums. Oh, we have heard much of you. You gave us hope. You kept us alive.” And he hugged me, and I broke down and cried. I broke down and cried.

And my kids said, “Pop, you’ve actually met Mandela! What did you think?” And I said, “I think that I’ve been in the presence of the strongest, most serene human being I’ve ever encountered in my entire life.” And I never had any cause to alter that assessment of him. He was an incredible person. And whenever he—you know, whenever he would see me, he would say, “My dear friend Ronald,” and my heart would just go…

And remember when he came to the United States on his thank-you tour? In Oakland—you know, I mean, competing with San Francisco and L.A.—you know, everybody was competing for his time. But Mandela, on his own, said, “Before I leave this country, I’m going to Oakland to thank Ron Dellums’ constituency for his service and for their support.” Fifty-five thousand people showed up. And a lot of people have no sense that the Bay Area is the second most diverse area in the country. So Mandela walks out on the stage with me, and I’m—

AMY GOODMAN: Where was this? Candlestick? The stadium?

RON DELLUMS: No, this was in Oakland, the Oakland Coliseum. So, I mean, I’m walking out. Mandela’s in my hood, right? So I’m walking out. The place is packed—55,000 people—and Mandela looks out, and he sees this incredible sea of humanity. And he turned to me—and this was the second thing I’ll never forget—he said, “Now I better understand you. You represent the human family. You represent where we must go. You represent the future of South Africa.” And what he was saying to me was that in that moment he saw a young black man who represented the entire human family, and he said, “My vision is not just a dream. It can be real, because this guy’s living it.” And it brought us closer to each other, because he saw that. And when he said to me, “You represent where we must go,” I mean, what can I say?

AMY GOODMAN: What can Congress do around the issue of police killings all over this country? What role do you think Congress can play? Since you’re talking about local police forces, you can work locally, what about federally, nationally?

RON DELLUMS: Remember I talked to you locally about a model policy on the use of deadly force that people ought to take to every different community, exercise your citizenship muscles, engage with cities around a universal model policy on the use of deadly force based on people being equal lives, people—equal protection? OK. So, at the federal—so if you’re dealing with that—and policing is a local thing—if you’re dealing with that at the federal level, we keep acting as if we’re reinventing the wheel. So, Baltimore explodes, and they go, “Oh, my god! What’s wrong?” The same damn thing that was wrong 20 years ago, 30 years ago—poverty, hunger, disease, inadequate education—all right?—homelessness, hopelessness—OK–neglect. So, it’s not—they’re reinventing the wheel.

Congress, get off your duff and start dealing with the real problems that confront America. Poverty is on the rise in this country, and we need to deal with that, OK? So Congress can step up. I’m one of the people that don’t believe—that challenges the notion that conservatives have that the poverty program was a big failure. The poverty program was brilliantly conceived, and it was being brilliantly implemented. For the first time in American history, poor people actually could direct millions of dollars. And number two, poor people actually started organizing. And we were the Young Turks in the community, and we actually said, “When Washington figures out that they’re financing a revolution, they’re going to end this thing.”

And I said, “So we need to organize folks in the community so that when the money dries up, they’re still organized to go forward.” So we actually saw it, and that’s what happened. Poor people had lawyers. Poor people had money. Poor people had doctors and health providers. And, you know, we were the generation that poor people in the community sent to college. They were the folks from the South. So they sent us to school. We came back lawyers, teachers, social workers, architects and what have you. So when the War on Poverty came, we were the ones in the back room, writing new ideas and new policies, OK?

Washington saw that, and they said, “Man, we’ve got to end this.” So then they started calling it poverty pimps, welfare pimps, blah blah blah. So they killed the idea. And we never were able to remount the idea, because people never fought hard enough to defend the idea that the poverty program was a brilliantly conceived set of ideas that really addressed a number of institutional problems that still manifest themselves. OK? So, we’ve got to figure out how to get that energy back out there.

And my message to young people is, “You’ve got to stand up and fight back.” And they said, “Well, are there two things that we could do? If you can only do two things to strike at poverty, what would you do?” And I said, “First, I would deal with gender equity in the workplace.” I said, “Because if you make sure that women make the same amount of money that men make in the working place, you will strike a blow at poverty that would be so amazing,” when you see all these single-family homes and blah blah blah. So, number one, gender equity, you know, in terms if income. Number two is we need to stop the conversation about minimum wage. I think that’s an antiquated concept. And maybe I’m an old guy, but my point is—minimum what? We ought to be talking about livable wage. OK?

So, if you do those two things, it’s interesting. When you confront conservatives on livable wage, they don’t quite know how to respond. The point being, “Well, look, you guys don’t want government to subsidize helping folks.” “Yeah, right. We believe in no taxes and little government.” “OK. So then why don’t you support my right to be able to take care of myself, by being able to have a livable wage? You can’t walk both sides of the street simultaneously. You can’t say you don’t want me to be able to do it on my own, and you don’t want to help me. So you’ve got to make a decision. So if you don’t want to help me, then stand up for my right to have a livable wage, and let me take care of my family.” They go, “Uh, uh, uh…” They don’t quite know how to answer that question.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel more powerful as a mayor, as a congressman, as head of the Armed Services Committee, as a professor, as an activist, young, old?

RON DELLUMS: I think the greatest—I think engaging with this generation of young people is awesome. And I come home from those engagements, and I feel, you know, the passion. The blood is running warm—you know what I mean?—and I’m alive, and I’m young. And so, I think trying to engage this generation of young people and helping them understand the lessons. You know, and Martin Luther King said—remember he said that “Longevity has its place. I would like to live a long life.” Well, for whatever reason, I’ve been blessed with longevity. I’m damn near 80. So, part of that longevity is: How do I convey those lessons learned? Not by being a dinosaur of yesterday, but to use the lessons of yesterday to bring them forward. And so I think that’s the fun part.

Being a mayor was an awesome, difficult job. Being the chair of the Armed Services Committee was perhaps the most incredible time in my life, because I got up one morning, and the peacenik from Berkeley was chair of the Armed Services Committee, and it was the greatest—one of the great challenges of my life. But being a mayor, you live with it intimately, on the ground, day in and day out. There’s no hiding. There’s no—you’ve got to have the resources in order to be able to do it. So, each and every one of them were challenges. And I keep saying to myself, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” And I keep thinking maybe I’ll go back to being a social worker.

AMY GOODMAN: Former congressmember, former Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, speaking in 2015 in the hallway of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., at a 50th anniversary conference, “Vietnam: The Power of Protest.” We’ll hear his speech at that conference when we return. Ron Dellums died on Monday of cancer at the age of 82. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Ron Dellums (1935-2018): Organizing for Peace Forces Us to Challenge All Forms of Injustice

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation