Ronald V. Dellums Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Legislating for the People: Conversation with Ronald Dellums, former member of U.S. House of Representatives, 2/10/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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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.

activists honor Dellums for his efforts in obtaining reparations for Japanese Americans illegally detained during WW II. 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.

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.

Dellums getting arrested during a demonstration against U.S. policy in Haiti 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.

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."

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