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I first met Ron in fall 1967, soon after I arrived in Berkeley for law school. He had been elected as the radical member of the Berkeley City Council in 1966 and was already well known for his progressive politics, charisma and passionate rhetoric.
We were both members of a group of student, faculty, and community activists engaged in anti-war organizing and local electoral politics. Many members of the group had been part of the Vietnam Day Committee and the Committee for New Politics, which backed Bob Scheer’s almost successful effort to unseat Democratic Congressman Jeffrey Cohelan in 1966. Cohelan was a Lyndon Johnson Democrat and strong supporter of the Vietnam war.
In May 1968 we organized the Vietnam Commencement at the University of California. Over 2,000 students pledged to resist the draft. We also supported John George, a radical African American attorney, as he made another run at Cohelan.
In 1970 it was Dellums’ turn to take on Cohelan. He had almost universal support in the Black community and from progressives overall. By spring the Berkeley campus had been in an almost continuous uproar over the war for the past year. As student body president I directed the resources of the student government to support the Vietnam Moratorium and help create a nationwide network of campus anti-war activists. We called a successful student strike and closed the UC campus for the last six weeks of school after Nixon invaded Cambodia and murdered students at Kent State and Jackson State. Hundreds of students turned out to walk precincts for Dellums, and he was elected.
The campaign’s only blemish was its refusal, under the sway of its more moderate leaders, to include a representative of the Black Panther Party on its executive committee. The Party was much more controversial in its 1960s reality than it is today in history’s romantic rear view mirror image.
Ron’s tenure in Congress was brilliant, especially his leadership roles in ending the Vietnam War and South African Apartheid. He was also an early supporter of a single payer healthcare program and an unapologetic democratic socialist.
Many Oakland activists wanted him to use his influence to build radical political power in Oakland, but he refused. Some speculated that he did not want to challenge moderate political leaders and pastors in the Black community.
By 2006, after eight years of Jerry Brown using the City to project himself back into State office, Oakland was ready to elect a mayor with actual left politics. Many of us were excited about Ron running. He was clearly reluctant. But at a Laney College press conference, a crowd of people yelling “Run Ron run!” brought tears to his eyes and a spontaneous decision to enter the race. The campaign brought back the old Ron Dellums. He embraced a progressive and creative political platform that I helped develop and won over voters with his passionate and articulate rhetoric, enlivening his classic intelligence with moral fervor.
Ron never became the mayor we wanted him to be. After so many years of leadership and struggle, it seems that he just ran out of gas. He was a real human being and one of the East Bay’s greatest leaders for 50 years.