Ronald V. Dellums, the son of a West Oakland longshoreman who as a liberal Congressman never forgot his roots as an anti-war activist and human rights champion, died early Monday at his Washington, D.C., home. He was 82. Dellums, who ended his political career as mayor of Oakland, recently battled prostate cancer, said Rep. Barbara Lee, who succeeded him in Congress.
In 27 years representing Oakland and Berkeley in the House of Representatives, Dellums put spending on education, jobs, and social programs ahead of military conflicts and armed forces expansion. His fierce opposition to the Vietnam War and relentless campaign against apartheid in South Africa made him a beloved figure in the East Bay, if also a radical elsewhere. He embraced the label, in his own way. “If it’s radical to oppose the insanity and cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it’s radical to oppose racism and sexism and other forms of oppression, if it’s radical to want to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness, and other forms of humanity, misery, then I’m proud to be called a radical,” Dellums said in 1970 after Vice President Spiro Agnew labeled him “an out and out radical.”
Born Nov. 24, 1935, Dellums was raised in West Oakland, the first stop for African-Americans migrating from the South during the buildup to World War II. He knew political activism at a young age: His uncle, C.L. Dellums, was a labor organizer with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American-led trade union in the U.S.
After graduating from Oakland Technical High School, Dellums served two years in the Marine Corps, attended Laney College, received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from San Francisco State University and then a master’s degree in social work at UC Berkeley.
Dellums was a social worker when he launched his political career in 1967 by winning a seat on the Berkeley City Council and drawing attention for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. Three years later, anti-war activists recruited him to run against incumbent Congressman Jeffery Cohelan, a more moderate liberal Democrat who supported the war.
In 1971, he stormed into Washington, D.C. — sporting an Afro, facial hair and bell bottoms — and became an agitator. Dellums held informal hearings on the Vietnam War when his calls for a House investigation went unheeded. His efforts in Congress landed Dellums on President Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List,” the informal name given to the president’s lineup of major political opponents. At the height of the Cold War, during the Carter administration, he took a delegation to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro. In 1986, he authored legislation to divest American companies and residents of holdings in South Africa, after more than a dozen years decrying apartheid. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode it, the first override in the 20th century of a presidential veto on foreign policy. South Africa repealed its apartheid laws in 1991, ending the sanctions. Dellums’ aggressive anti-apartheid stance earned praise from Nelson Mandela, recalled Dan Lindheim, who worked for Dellums in Washington and Oakland. “Mandela credited Ron with having done more for eliminating apartheid than any other American,” Lindheim said Monday. Over the years, Dellums became known for working across the political aisle, even as the first African-American and anti-war activist to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee. In 1997, Dellums announced his retirement from Congress.