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Remembering Vermont's most famous war resister: David Dellinger, 1925 - 2004

Bernie Sanders

Published June 2, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Dave Dellinger's father was a well-connected Massachusetts lawyer and friend of Republican Governor Calvin Coolidge. One of his grandmothers was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin was a direct ancestor.

With such a pedigree, it's hard to see what would lead Dellinger to become an all-American radical, an internationally respected nonviolent activist and a leader of peace and justice movements for more than 60 years. But the young man from the Boston suburb of Wakefield took a less-traveled path from the start: living with the poor, attending seminary, refusing to register for the draft at the brink of World War II -- and sometimes going to jail for his beliefs.

On May 25, at age 88, Dellinger departed this world among family and close friends from pneumonia-induced heart failure. He had been living in Vermont for almost 25 years, most recently in the Montpelier area, and had suffered from Alzheimer's for his last few years.

At a time of deep national division and international tension, his passing serves as a reminder that principled dissent and active, civil resistance to illegitimate authority can change history. As historian Howard Zinn said at a 2001 tribute to Dellinger, just before U.S. troops went to war in Afghanistan, "There is no moment better than now to remember what Dave has stood for and to fight for it together, all of us -- for peace and justice."

Dellinger was mostly known as a nonviolent antiwar activist, but his path took many turns. In the mid-1930s, for example, it looked as if he might end up in law or the government. Obviously, Dellinger saw something different ahead. He'd been picking up ideas from philosophy and economics, from radical campus Christians and other college friends. He also drew inspiration from nature, the campaigns of Gandhi, and from getting to know fellow workers during a summer job in a Maine factory.

In his autobiography, From Yale to Jail, Dave recounted a college incident that changed his life. One night, when tensions were high after a football game, he and some friends were attacked by local toughs. In the fight, Dellinger decked one of them -- and then experienced revulsion at what he'd done. "I knew that I would never be able to strike another human being again," he wrote.

Dellinger stayed with the young man he'd hit, apologized, and walked him home. As they parted, he felt what he called "the power of our unexpected and unusual bonding." The encounter's impact stayed with him.

On his way to begin a doctorate fellowship at Oxford University in 1936, Dellinger stopped in Spain to see the communal settlements of the Popular Front and stayed at the People's Univer-sity in Madrid. As Francisco Franco's soldiers advanced on the city, he considered joining the resistance. But he couldn't ignore grim reality: Communists were shooting Trotskyists and both were shooting anarchists. In fact, while he was in Barcelona, some anarchists fired at his car. Ultimately, Dellinger came to the philosophical realization: "Whoever won in an armed struggle, it wouldn't be the people."

Back in the U.S., Dellinger rejected a comfortable future and left Yale. With no cash and wearing his oldest clothes, he traveled around the country, riding freight trains, sleeping at missions, standing in bread lines, even begging. This journey, inspired by Francis of Assisi, continued intermittently for three years.

The 1940s were not easy times to oppose war and promote nonviolence. Pacifists found themselves alone as liberals and Leftists in the antiwar movement supported "preparedness," collective security and -- once Germany attacked Russia -- entry into the conflict. Dellinger was living and working in Harlem while studying at the Union Theological Seminary. After the 1940 conscription law was passed, he opted not to accept religious exemption; instead, he and several others refused to register for the draft.

His reasons for opposing the unfolding "world war" were complicated. He knew about U.S. corporate support for Hitler and the Nazis. He had also visited Germany and concluded that there was potential for internal opposition. In general, he saw the war as a geopolitical chess game rather than a fight against tyranny and racism. Beyond that, he couldn't stomach the idea of being exempted when so many others, especially blacks, were given no choice.

His decision not to register led to two of the most important events in his life: meeting the woman with whom he would spend the next 60 years, and going to jail for the first time.

Dellinger spent a year in the Danbury federal prison. Early on, because he sat in the black section during a movie, he was put in solitary. Then, when he refused to answer to a number or submit to guard harassment, he was thrown into the notorious Hole. Some prisoners were broken by the experience. For Dellinger, it led to a personal breakthrough: a deep feeling of love for everyone.

After that, he was targeted as a troublemaker. But his commitment to ending racial segregation also brought him new allies, especially among black prisoners. There were more threats and more days in solitary. Dellinger didn't waver, even when Communist prisoners -- who at first called him a hero -- decided he was a "fascist coward" after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

Shortly after getting out of jail, Dellinger was invited to speak at a National Conference of the Student Christian Movement in Ohio. There he met Elizabeth Peterson, a student at Pacific College in Oregon. She also opposed the draft, had worked with migrant workers and was interested in Dellinger's commune experience. One month after meeting, on February 4, 1942, the two were wed.

During the war years, the couple and their comrades often risked arrest as they struggled against the tide. A demonstration at the Capitol in 1943 led to another prison term for Dellinger, this time two years at the prison farm just outside the walls of the Lewisburg penitentiary. During that sentence, he joined a strike to end segregation and fasted for weeks to stop prison censorship and the use of the Hole. The protesters won a small victory this time, ending the censorship of mail.

By the time Dellinger was released in 1945, Elizabeth had given birth to the first of their five children and was living on a Pennsylvania apple farm. Before long, between picking apples and working on a nearby dairy farm, Dellinger and friends teamed up to launch Direct Action, a magazine reflecting their militant opposition to war and faith in the power of nonviolent action. That was succeeded by Alternative, Individual Action and, finally, Liberation, a venerable magazine that had a 20-year life. Countless writers, many of whom became prominent, contributed to a new groundswell of radical thought.

The '50s and even the early '60s may have been known as times of conformity and repression. But storms were brewing behind those calm skies, and Dellinger helped stir up the winds for change. He was involved in antinuclear demonstrations and civil-disobedience actions, marches and Freedom Rides in the South, solidarity actions to bridge the people-to-people gap between Cuba and the U.S. after 1959, protests with Martin Luther King in the civil-rights movement and a series of nonviolent committees and organizations. It was a tumultuous period, leading up to the 1967 March on the Pentagon, protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and the 1969 show trial of the Chicago Eight.

Going up against the national "peace leaders" of his day, Dellinger and a few others sided with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which came on strong in 1965 with a call for a national anti-Vietnam War demonstration. After that protest, Dellinger was jailed again -- and threatened with charges of treason. In solidarity, some of his fellow political prisoners refused bail unless the threats were dropped. The government backed down.

The next year, Dellinger visited Vietnam for the first time and personally witnessed the ruthless conduct of the war. He talked with American POWs and got the Vietnamese side from Ho Chi Minh. They also spoke about Harlem -- "Uncle Ho" had worked for a Brooklyn family after World War I -- the poverty of black people and how anti-Communist paranoia had led the U.S. into a series of arrogant mistakes. The visit led to a series of trips Dellinger helped organize until the war ended in 1975.

According to Chicago's strong-man Mayor Richard Daley, "agitators" such as Dellinger, Tom Hayden of SDS, Abbie Hoffman of the Yippie movement and others incited the riots that erupted at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. As was later proven, however, it was actually a police riot. Meanwhile, a climate of repression blanketed the nation. A new attorney general, Richard Kleindeinst, called antiwar activists "ideological criminals," while the FBI launched a secret counter-intelligence program. "Tricky Dick" Nixon was in the White House, and scapegoats were needed to explain away civil disorder.

Eight activists, including Dellinger, were indicted. The main charges were conspiracy and traveling across state lines "with the intent to incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in, and carry on a riot." Actually, some of the defendants didn't even know one another and, as Hoffman used to say, "We couldn't agree on lunch." But they felt that the charges were a distraction and decided to put the government on trial. At 54, Dellinger was the self-proclaimed "old man" of the group.

The proceedings ran five months, beginning on September 26, 1969. Many of the key moments were big news across the country. A few were absurdly funny. But sometimes the trial looked like an inquisition, perhaps never so clearly as on October 29, when Black Panther Bobby Seale was carried into the court, bound and gagged, for demanding his right to defend himself.

The following February, as Judge Julius Hoffman began post-trial contempt proceedings, Dellinger was allowed to address the court. It was an extraordinary moment. Ignoring the judge's commands to stop, Dave talked passionately about racism and the war, his refusal to be silenced, and "a new generation of Americans who will not put up with tyranny, will not put up with a façade of democracy without the reality."

Applause and "complete disorder in the courtroom" followed -- especially when the marshals tried to silence Dellinger's daughter Michelle and he bounded to her rescue. As one of the defense attorneys recalls it, "Everyone -- the audience, the press, the defendants and their lawyers -- was screaming or shouting or sobbing. No one who was there will ever forget it."

The Chicago defendants were initially found guilty, but the verdict was overturned by history and higher courts. Long after the trial, Dellinger continued to work with countless peace, solidarity and social justice movements, often joining in protests and hunger strikes. He actively supported independent political action, from the antinuclear Clamshell Alliance and the Greens to Bernie Sanders. Accompanied by Elizabeth, he frequently visited prisoners, an enduring commitment that helped spark the 2002 formation of Vermont's Alliance for Prison Justice. Most notably, Dellinger worked for the releases of Native American leader Leonard Peltier and black journalist Mumia Abu Jamal, both of whom were convicted of murder on trumped-up evidence.

Dellinger never stopped fighting for disarmament and social justice, and against corporate exploitation and war. His comfort with young people and the collective process increased his effectiveness. He taught and practiced nonviolent civil resistance, offering countless teaching moments to those whose lives he touched.

For 12 years, beginning in 1990, Dellinger was board co-chair of Toward Freedom, a progressive foundation based in Burlington, and he wrote frequently for its flagship publication of the same name. In 1993, Pantheon Books published his long-awaited and often revelatory autobiography, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter.

Dellinger remained engaged in life and interested in politics until his final months. Continuing to speak out for disarmament and social justice, he focused more recently on prison issues and economic alternatives to globalization.

In October 2001, some of his friends organized a celebration of his life in Burlington. It was a long- overdue tribute, and hundreds came. True to form, Dellinger didn't want the event to focus only on him, but also on Elizabeth and the issues and movements to which they had committed themselves. Still, the touching stories revealed the friendships, hopes, passions and fierce determination that shaped Dellinger's life. TF preserved the evening on a CD set, entitled Nonviolent Warriors: Dave Dellinger and the Power of the People.

About a year ago, after a TF meeting, Dellinger quietly passed me a copy of a poem he had just written. A meditation on Valentine's Day, it also described his approach to life with eloquent simplicity:

I love everyone,

even those who

disagree with me.

I love everyone,

even those who

agree with me.

I love everyone,

rich and poor,

and I love everyone

of different races,

including people

who are indigenous,

wherever they live,

in this country

or elsewhere.

I love everyone,

whatever religion they are,

and atheists too.

People who contemplate,

wherever it leads them.

I love everyone,

both in my heart

and in my daily life.

Echoing Gandhi, Dellinger often said, "Be the change you wish to see." He did just that, and it was inspiring to behold.

Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom and the author of Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do. He worked closely with Dave Dellinger for 20 years.

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Greg Guma


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