Lying Down with the Lions: A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power

Lying Down with the Lions: A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power

by Ronald V. Dellums, H. Lee Halterman

Paperback(New Edition)

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Tells the stories of Dellums's remarkable life and of his political battles, with lessons learned about leadership, politics, and the importance of building coalitions to effect change.

Profound and humane, Lying Down with the Lions ensures Ronald Dellums's place as one of our most important leaders of the second half of the 20th century. When Dellums arrived in Washington in 1971 to represent Oakland, California, in the House of Representatives, his radical activism had already earned him a place on Nixon's enemy list. When he retired in 1998—his radicalism still intact—he left a record of accomplishment that has made an indelible mark on our political landscape. From his days as a freshman from California's 9th Congressional District, to helping to found the Congressional Black Caucus, to being the first African-American to serve on and later chair the House Armed Services Committee, Dellums's tenure in the House is both a testament to his significant career and a crucible of American politics at the close of the century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807043196
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 02/09/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Ronald V. Dellums (1935–2018) represented California's 9th Congressional District for twenty-seven years.

Lee Halterman was a member of Dellums's staff, his principal spokesman, and was the director of policy for the House Armed Services Committee during Dellums's chairmanship.

Read an Excerpt


Movements explain my public life. Without the progressive causes of the 1960s and 1970s to be accountable to, I never would have embarked upon the odyssey that became three decades of service in elective office. As a child, I had never sought leadership positions in school. As an adult, I had chosen a career path that satisfied my need to contribute to the betterment of community through social work and community organizing. Recruited to go to Brandeis University for a Ph.D., I was thrilled at the prospect of contributing my ideas and experiences to the mainstream of progressive thought and to the expanding tradition of African American intellectual expression.

    At the end of the twentieth century, manifestly a period of individualism, it may seem odd to hear that somebody would drop his plans and change his life because the community called upon him for service. In 1967 it seemed the most logical thing in the world—irresistible, compelling, and urgent. Without a movement to make the demand, a political career would have been too personal a quest and one for which I felt neither destined nor prepared.

    For me the decisive moment came during a period of extraordinarily intense political activism in American life. Society seemed mobilized on every important issue that confronts us. The activists and supporters of long-standing causes, such as the women's and civil rights movements, seemed to dig deeper for strength and determination. Confronted with the failure to achieve through established political and judicial channels the fundamental liberties and racial equalitypromised in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, people were becoming angry, and often their rage boiled over into rebellion. The nightly news seemed to echo the Declaration of Independence's cataclysmic proclamation: "[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends"—of securing the "unalienable" rights and liberty of the people—"it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it."

    But in addition to anger, there was hope. Certainly for many the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed like the dawn of a new era, one during which the wrongs of so many centuries could finally be righted. In that sense, the leaders of its movements saw themselves as the heirs to the revolutionaries who founded the nation, the abolitionists and suffragettes who fought to realize the promise of liberty for all citizens, and the labor leaders who fought for equity and dignity.

    Despite our understanding of the long duration of these struggles, we wanted peace, and we wanted it now; we wanted freedom, and we wanted it now; we wanted justice, and we wanted it now. In short, we were a generation of people in a hurry, impatient with lingering oppression and with the political institutions that seemed unwilling to make the changes necessary to end that oppression. Hundreds of thousands of people would mobilize to fight injustice, to end wars, to promote equality, and to end poverty. It was hard to be a bystander, and, in the eyes of some, bystanders were agents against change—a "part of the problem." Like that of the Civil War a century earlier, this social schism would divide families as the fabric of our society began to unravel.

    The political and social conflict that gripped the nation, indeed the world, reached a fever pitch in my community of Berkeley, California. Within the cauldron of the Bay Area, all of the movements for social progress had significant constituencies. Their militancy was palpable, and the demand to "be part of the solution" certainly forced one to defend any decision not to become involved. In 1967 I ran for a seat on the Berkeley City Council—and won. Once I was a public official, I felt it my duty to listen carefully to the protesters. I heard the legitimacy of many of their demands and worked to further these causes. I agreed to campaign to go to Washington as the U.S. congressional representative from my district only because I was willing to be a voice for these movements.

    While many with whom I shared governance on the Berkeley City Council and then later in Congress would decry the protests, demonstrations, and other expressions of outrage as a discordant noise—incoherent and strident—I heard a chorus. I heard harmony in the claims for equality by African Americans, by Native Americans, the continent's indigenous peoples, and by Latinos and Asian Americans. I heard the counterpoint added by the assertions of women, lesbians and gay men, and the disabled, all of whom were being denied full participation in the economic, social, and political life of the community. I heard syncopation from the environmentalists and from peace movement activists, who were seeking to defend the life of the planet from ecocide and its people from self-destruction. I found inspiration in this music of protest and I believed that its powerful voices deserved representation in a body that all to often seemed to refuse to listen or to respond. In her essay "Where Is the Rage?" June Jordan, an African American and an extraordinary activist, poet, and professor, captures the legacy of that era: "unabashed moral certitude and the purity—the incredible outgoing energy—of righteous rage."

    At the time, many felt that the ideas advanced by this loose coalition of social movements were not being vigorously articulated in the institutions of the body politic. By accepting the call to run for elective office, I entered a bond—a sacred contract if you will—with my community to represent the wisdom and the beauty of these ideas and ideals, and to articulate the "righteous rage" of those who had been the victims of injustice. My election—or the election of any single individual—could not be a substitute for community activism, but it could be a component of an overall strategy to achieve social change.

    In the years to come, when harnessed to the political process, such powerful expressions from the community would change the world. But as an activist chosen to be an insider, I would often lament the failure of the community to mobilize in order to pressure the institutions of government, and the sometimes dispositive impact this would have upon efforts to stop a war, to redefine national priorities, or to achieve other significant objectives. I would wonder about the efficacy of continuing to serve in public office. During those times, only my faith in the ideals and the movements that had inspired me in the first place allowed me to carry out the duties of representation and governance.

Departing from public office after nearly thirty years provides both an opportunity and an obligation to share some insight on the public record. While in the beginning I sought to avoid the call to public office, I came to value such service as extraordinarily thrilling, challenging, and humbling. The jokes of late-night television hosts notwithstanding, I came to believe that elective public service is perhaps the highest honor that a community can bestow upon one of its own.

    The experience of being an African American representing constituencies that were overwhelmingly white—first on the Berkeley City Council and then in the U.S. House—was complex and challenging. As a "leftwing radical" elected to a Democrat-controlled Congress—a Congress significantly influenced by its "Southern Barons" and one that shared power with Richard Nixon's White House—I found the challenge even more daunting.

    The pressure from the White House came down on me early, even before my election to Congress. At a time when I had won only the Democratic nomination, the Nixon White House unleashed Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to attack me from across the nation. Speaking in Arkansas, Agnew challenged the right of the people who had chosen me as their candidate to have any voice in the Congress, by charging that I was "an out-and-out radical" who needed to be "purged from the body politic." This was not an idle threat, given that institutions such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), established to enforce McCarthyism's efforts at rigid political conformity, still existed upon my arrival in Washington. Although the disclosure of the Nixon "enemies list"—and my prominent place on it—was yet to come, I found myself reviled by the White House and by many in the Congress because of my left-wing political views and those of the community I represented.

    Much of what we accomplished during the first half of my tenure in the House occurred despite the pervasive influence of those who held that my values and positions were "outside the mainstream." Often those successes were achieved beyond the legislative chamber. When certain political leaders and much of the establishment press looked at me, they did not see Ron Dellums, a member of Congress the equal of all others under our system, where districts grant mandates to representatives through the ballot—they saw Ron Dellums, representative of that "commie-pinko leftwing community of 'Berzerkeley'" and a person whose ideas belonged outside the legislative chamber, if anywhere. By characterizing me as an extremist, and by efforts to marginalize the ideas I advocated, they sought to avoid the depth, integrity, and beauty of the political idealism that my constituents had sent me to Washington to represent. The attack was all too often personal in nature, focused on my credibility and authenticity as an American rather than as a challenge at the level of ideas. As it would for anybody in my situation, this caused me great personal pain and consternation over the years.

    But the community kept returning me to Congress and kept insisting that I represent its urgent, progressive voice. Like the Southern Barons of an earlier era, I and other like-minded legislators became a group—in our case a group of urban progressives—who ultimately benefited from seniority, and whose ideas and ideals would begin to find their way more prominently into the debate and into the legislative product. By staying engaged, and by learning the legislative process and demanding that it accord our ideas the dignity granted to those of other coalitions, we began more and more to influence legislative outcomes. However, seniority alone does not account for our success. We depended very much on the presence of what the Reverend Jesse Jackson would later come to refer to as "street heat"—people mobilized to command the attention of the organs of power. Their activism always enhanced our ability to achieve success legislatively on behalf of their idealism and ideas.

    Recently someone remarked to me casually that the mid- to late 1990s seemed to occasion the twenty-fifth anniversaries of many of the successes or manifestations of the progressive movement as a whole. Earth Day, the Stonewall demonstration in New York, the establishment of affirmative action programs and Third World Studies departments, the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, the United States' withdrawal from Vietnam, the impeachment of Richard Nixon—these and many other events were the progeny of progressive campaigns that have changed the political, cultural, and social fabric of our nation. And yet recently the electoral ascendancy of the Far Right has threatened to reverse those gains, although it has also provoked a counterreaction to its overreaching efforts. Having lost sight of their earlier victories, many progressives now question their ability to bring about change or to resist right-wing reaction. A new cynicism arises, fueled in part by the press, which often fails to take a careful and comprehensive look at the conditions that continue to cause great pain in our society. Some who were past supporters of progressive movements now question even the necessity to vigilantly protect the achievements of the last three decades.

    I remain committed to the belief that the view of justice articulated by the movements of the 1960s and 1970s remains the best and most noble course for our nation. It is imperative for a new generation of activists to take up the challenge and to build upon the victories of that era. I firmly believe that, in this respect, history is progressive. Although the forces of reaction will always resist change, the people will continue to move history forward toward equality and justice; they will refuse to be bound forever by tyranny and oppression. The question will always be, How will change be made—peacefully or not?

The events I have selected to discuss in this book are those that formed me before I entered public service and those that later contributed to my understanding of how to effect change through the use of government power. Our advocacy combined a knowledge of movements, the use of coalition, adherence to principle, and actions to create new awareness and new possibilities. It is my hope to do justice to the grand sweep of events that has done so much to change the world in my lifetime, and during my thirty-year political career. This is not an exhaustive history, but one that I hope will provide enough depth of analysis to be meaningful to the reader.

    When I look at the world that confronts many young African Americans today, I see the despair and hopelessness that their situation evokes, and I remember my early life and how a similar despair gripped some during that era as well. I urgently want to instill in the current generation of youth the sense of power and righteousness that has animated centuries of struggle against racism and oppression, in this nation and throughout the world, and to provide some perspective on the victories that have been achieved. I hope that those aspiring to bring about positive changes in society will learn from my experience that entering public life can be both a principled and effective way to make a contribution.

    The liberation of South Africa from the yoke of apartheid is one of the most important political and human rights events of my lifetime, and I consider having played some role in that process to be my greatest legislative and personal achievement. The history of that struggle—and of how the anti-apartheid movement in this and other countries contributed to the final outcome—should be studied in political science as a classic example for young people of how a community can manifest its demands and then organize to achieve success.

    In 1973, the idea that a leftist and declared peace activist could someday chair the House Armed Services Committee was beyond imagination. When I did assume the chairmanship, twenty years later, during the transition period following the end of the Cold War, the new realities of international politics required me to be honest enough to challenge the continued value of my own Cold War-era paradigms. It was not enough to challenge the "hawks" to accommodate their thinking to the newly emerging circumstances; we had also to challenge the "doves."

    Social progress occurs when the reach of justice, equality, and freedom are extended to all people and the economic foundation for healthy homes and communities is established. As an activist for justice, I agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that a society cannot have justice without peace—or peace without justice. These are inseparably linked aspects of a community's condition; the absence of one is the absence of the other, and they can only be present at the same time. Hearing his articulation of this truth in Berkeley, California, would change the very basis of my political outlook and the nature of my commitment as a representative of the people.

    Listening to Dr. King on the radio some time later, I heard him say that the most revolutionary act one could commit was to assert the full measure of one's citizenship. For thirty years of public service, I attempted to do whatever I could to help an entire constituency do just that. It seems to me that we must now revisit the foundations of our principles and understand the strategies that are necessary to achieve change in these times—and that an essential element of any such strategy must be to reassert our citizenship as vociferously as we did during the 1960s. As June Jordan wrote in her essay, "I do not believe that we can restore and expand the freedoms that our lives require unless and until we embrace the justice of our rage."

    This rage must confront the continued misallocation of national resources, the erosion of our constitutional liberties, and the escalating threats against the achievement of constitutionally based equality. In the 1960s, Dr. King held a mirror up to the collective face of America and the view seen was so repugnant that the nation agreed it must affirmatively act to change the festering conditions of raw injustice that it saw. The prejudice and discrimination brought boldly into relief by the civil rights movement have yet to be fully eradicated, and the disingenuous claim that white workers and students are displaced from opportunities because of affirmative action misses the essential point. In an era of downsizing and the offshore migration of capital investment, opportunities must be expanded for all our citizens while the nation continues the necessary business of opening doors for those historically closed off from opportunity. Disturbingly, some who call themselves progressives question the need to deploy proven strategies to eliminate the lingering effects of racial inequality, in the name of a purely class-based politics. A truly progressive view should demand that we mobilize to address both issues—race and class—insisting on full employment and full education strategies while refusing to retreat from the principle that racism must end in our society and equality must become manifest. If we can mobilize in pursuit of such a high moral purpose, one that sets out to benefit all, we can again change the world.

    Finally, I have been reminded throughout my professional and political career that working for progress in the real world demands that one learn how to escape the narrow confines of received assumptions and theories. This means constantly reassessing, moving forward, and refusing to be bound by old ways of thinking, while remaining true to core principles. Trained by a mentor social worker to understand this point early on, I came to comprehend that my public career did not allow for the luxury of ideological rigidity. Such rigidity constitutes a failure of intellectual rigor and is rooted in a misunderstanding of constantly changing material circumstances. This early mentoring, and the skills I learned at the university, would aid me throughout my career. For in one sense—whether as a caseworker, a group worker, a community organizer, or a national legislator—I would never stop being a social worker, no matter how far my calling stretched the boundaries of that profession.

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