A tribute to Ron Dellums, radical

Former US Congressman and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, who passed away recently, played a leading role in the global fight against South African Apartheid in the 1980s.

Ron Dellums. Image credit Thomas Hawk via Flickr.

The American congressman, Ronald Vernie (Ron) Dellums, who represented Oakland, California in the US Congress (1971-1998), has passed. As loving tributes pour in, many praise his long-standing commitment to and leadership in the global struggle against Apartheid. Others highlight his decades-long activism on behalf of civil rights and as a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus. Today, people might look at Dellums, with his coifed afro, and wonder where black leaders like him are now. But to truly understand Dellums’ radicalism, one must appreciate his family’s commitment to both unions and racial equality.

Crucially, his father, Vernie, was an Oakland longshoreman and proud member of Local 10, the San Francisco Bay Area branch of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU). The ILWU was perhaps the country’s most powerful left-wing union. The West Coast dockworkers were led by Harry Bridges, an Australian immigrant, hated by conservatives and Cold War liberals because of his commitment to working-class power, unionism, racial equality and socialism.

His uncle, C.L. Dellums, was the most important black unionist, indeed the most influential civil rights leader, in California in the mid 1900s. He led the West Coast locals of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. This union was co-founded by A. Philip Randolph, probably the most important black unionist in American history. It was Randolph’s idea to “March on Washington” at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most famous speech. That 1963 rally, don’t forget, was “for jobs and freedom.”

In a country like the United States, founded upon and still committed to racial capitalism, one always must fight two monsters: racism and capitalism. Indeed, the monstrous Hydra has many heads including sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and imperialism, as well. Dellums understood these matters because he was raised by a longshoreman and railroad porter, each of whom belonged to powerful, anti-racist unions.

When elected to Congress in 1970, Dellums became its most radical member. (It is worth noting that, today, Representative Barbara Lee, who followed Dellums as US representative for Oakland-Berkeley, likely holds that title now.) He immediately joined the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus, which advocates for African-American issues in Congress. Shortly thereafter, he co-sponsored a bill (with John Conyers of Detroit) to sanction South Africa for its heinous treatment of its black majority; the racist system known as Apartheid—fascist as well as white supremacist—increasingly drew the attention of the world for its odiousness.

In his autobiographyLying Down with the Lions: A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power, Dellums wrote that it was radical black workers from the Polaroid Corporation who helped convince him to fight Apartheid. They hated that Polaroid cameras were used by the Apartheid regime in the production of the notorious pass books that tightly restricted black freedom of movement.

In the 1970s, black and white left radicals in his father’s union, ILWU Local 10, formed the first rank-and-file anti-Apartheid committee of any US union. The Southern African Liberation Support Committee organized Local 10 and other ILWU members, starting in 1976, shortly after the Soweto uprising galvanized the struggle inside South Africa and worldwide. This committee was led by the African-American communist Leo Robinson, with key support from an anti-imperialist New Left white man, Larry Wright.

In October 1984, the Southern African Liberation Support Committee, along with support from a Trotskyist caucus, gained the unanimous support of Local 10 members to boycott Apartheid cargo. The following month, just weeks after President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election, longshoremen refused to touch the South African cargo that had arrived aboard a Dutch ship. For the next eleven days, thousands of Bay Area residents, including Angela Davis, rallied in solidarity with the dockworkers at San Francisco Pier 80.

The same week, in Washington, DC, Dellums became one of the first protesters arrested for sitting-in at the South African embassy. His arrest was part of the strategy of the newly-created Free South Africa Movement. Dellums understood that organizing demanded foot soldiers as well as policy proposals and he engaged in both. He marched (and got arrested) for challenging Apartheid in South Africa and South African-controlled Southwest Africa (now Namibia). He also built a coalition in Congress that passed a bill to sanction South Africa and divest from it, meaning that the United States would not engage in trade until Apartheid ended.

Of course, Reagan vetoed the bill. However, in a stunning rebuke, a bipartisan group overrode Reagan’s veto. United States sanctions, along with similar efforts in countries worldwide, gave support for the United Democratic Front, the social movement inside South Africa. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison after 27 years, as were other political prisoners, and many organizations, including the African National Congress, were unbanned.

In 1990, Dellums flew to Lusaka, Zambia to meet Mandela and other ANC leaders. That was when he achieved the dream of many in the African diaspora, particularly his mother. He also visited South Africa. That same year, Mandela first visited the United States on a ten-day tour to cities that had participated in the black freedom struggle. His last stop was Oakland, where he spoke to 60,000 adoring people. Dellums hosted the rally. When Mandela came to the stage, 10% of his speech was devoted to thanking the longshoremen for their efforts. Dellums, the son of a Local 10 member, must have nodded knowingly.

Dellums was a black radical alright. But he also was a socialist, though he had mellowed over the years. He always understood—and centered—the struggle of working people, especially the African-American, Asian-American, and Latino members of his district in Oakland and Berkeley.

Ron Dellums fought the good fight. He appreciated the struggle against racism is permanently joined with those against sexism, militarism, and capitalism. He was intersectional before intersectionality was a thing. Presente!

Further Reading