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In May 1973, I had an internship with my local congressman in Washington, DC, the summer of Watergate. About two weeks into my internship, word traveled through the Cannon House Office Building that some “liberal” reps were going to the House floor to make speeches arguing for Nixon’s impeachment. I rushed over to hear impassioned speeches by Bella Abzug, Patricia Schroeder, Elizabeth Holtzman, and Ron Dellums. The Senate Watergate Select Committee had begun hearings the week before on May 18, ironically the day before I turned 18.

Ron Dellums

Though it was after 5 p.m. on Friday, I was shocked when I saw no more than half a dozen other people in the House gallery. It was compelling, and I was transfixed as I listened to these great leaders articulate what many Americans were already thinking, that Nixon HAD to go. Dellums, the former Berkeley city councilman, led off with a passionately thorough critique of Nixon’s abuses of power and misrepresentations over Vietnam, and ended with an urgent plea to begin impeachment proceedings. The term “Young Lion” came to mind: he looked like one with his proud Afro and erect 6’ 4” frame.

Most Congressmen and the media dismissed this dramatic event as “grandstanding,” “pre-mature,” or “wishful thinking.” I was disappointed not to see coverage in the Washington Post the next day. Only the Congressional Record did their job, preserving the transcriptions of everything that was said. (I’m trying to find those speeches.)

Dellums was a second term Congressman from Oakland. He graduated from Oakland Tech, and served in the Marine Corps. Upon discharge, he attended Laney College, then graduated from Oakland City College, San Francisco State and UC-Berkeley, where he earned an MSW and became a psychiatric social worker.

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To progressive-minded people, Ron Dellums represented all the positive urgency of the agenda, and spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War, while passionately promoting the ideals of the Free Speech Movement and the Black Panther Party.

To progressive-minded people, Ron Dellums represented all the positive urgency of the agenda, and spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War, while passionately promoting the ideals of the Free Speech Movement and the Black Panther Party. This earned him the enmity of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who called him “an out and out radical.” Dellums wore Agnew’s branding as a badge of honor saying, “If it’s radical to oppose the insanity and cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it’s radical to oppose racism and sexism and all other forms of oppression, if it’s radical to want to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness, and other forms of human misery, then I’m proud to be called a radical.”

Ron Dellums was born in West Oakland on November 24, 1935, one day before my mother was in another part of the country. That came to my attention as a young intern, because I read my copy of the Congressional Directory as thoroughly as I did the sports agate pages in those days, when my eyes were better. My mother, Bert Adler Prosterman, was also involved in politics at the time, eventually becoming president of the Memphis School Board. After noticing the birthdays, I often looked for parallels and comparisons.

West Oakland of the 40’s and 50’s might be characterized as the “Harlem of the West” – an enclave of Renaissance, nurturing and progressive development. Dellums was a product of that magical environment.

While we honor Ron Dellums, this is not a campaign for sainthood. His tenure as Mayor of Oakland (2007-11) was mixed, and he alienated a lot of people during that time. Having never elicited a reply from a series of letters and phone calls throughout his tenure, I count myself among them; but have been told by people close to him that my experience was a result of the misplaced gate-keeping tendencies of his third wife. Though Dellums alienated some long-time supporters, he used his Congressional connections to benefit and enrich the city, expand the Port of Oakland and beef up the police department. He was also a calming force in the riotous aftermath of the murder of Oscar Grant by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer in 2009.

In Congress, he also voted against every American military campaign except the intervention in Somalia in 1992. Perhaps Ron Dellums’ lasting legacy is his passionate advocacy for education, health care, job training, and affordable housing. When I was 18, Ron Dellums inspired me to want to be like him. Now, his legacy is inspiration to return American government to a state of sanity and effectiveness that reflects the ideals he represented so well.

H. Scott Prosterman