Dellums died on Monday at the age of 82. Jon Schwarz writes an appreciation of the life of this avowed socialist congressman who had to fight opposition from even within his own Democratic party. In a memoir, Dellums described the approach he took in 1970 to unseat a Democratic incumbent who was a Cold War liberal who had supported Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam war policies.
The goal of his campaign, Dellums explained, was to appeal “to people across the divides of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status … to speak to people on the basis of their own mutual self-interest. … Equality and justice were themes of relevance to women, to trade unionists, to those with disabilities, and to seniors, just as they were to blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.”
Of course, his win in the primary led to a panic not only from the right but within his own party, very similar to the reaction to the recent win by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Dellums’s primary victory immediately led to a gigantic Republican freakout. Spiro Agnew, then vice president, assailed Dellums as a “radical extremist.” Dellums’s GOP opponent in the general election called him the candidate of “the crazies” and said that he was part of “the lunatic left wing.”
But Dellums didn’t tack to the center by even a millimeter — on Vietnam or anything else. He continued to identify as a socialist, just as he had throughout the primary. And on Election Day that fall, he became both the first avowed socialist to win a seat in Congress since World War II, and the first black candidate in American history ever elected from a majority-white district.
After winning, Dellums faced some of his strongest opposition from other Democrats. When he first walked onto the House floor to attend a meeting of the Democratic Caucus, he said he overheard one of his colleagues ask about him: “Where is that radical son of bitch?” But he was undeterred.
Dellums immediately held unofficial hearings about Vietnam — unofficial because his fellow Democrats would not permit official ones. He started pushing for the U.S. to sanction apartheid South Africa that same year, and after 15 years, finally won in 1986 when Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over President Ronald Reagan’s veto. He co-founded both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He helped popularize the tradition, born in these caucuses, of creating alternative federal budgets — visions for where the U.S. should be trying to go. He worked with then-Rep. John Kasich to kill the preposterously wasteful B-2 bomber, and rose to become chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
Let’s hope Ocasio-Cortez and the other progressives now running for office follow the Dellums model.