avatar
Dave Dellinger: The Life of a Nonviolent Warrior


Dave Dellinger’s journey began in Wakefield, Massachussetts, a suburb of Boston. His dad was a well-connected Republican lawyer and a friend of the state’s governor, Calvin Coolidge – a native Vermonter, by the way, who went on to become president. One of his grandmothers was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. His father’s ancestors can be traced back to North Carolina, before the American Revolution. In fact, Benjamin Franklin was a direct ancestor, by way of one of Franklin’s grand nephews and a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. Quite a pedigree for an American radical!


 


By the mid-1930s, it looked like Dave was on the fast track to a career in law or government. But he already saw a different direction. He had been picking up ideas – and you know how dangerous they can be! Ideas from philosophy and economics, from radical Christians and college friends like Walt Rostow. Rostow was advocating communism at the time, but Dave questioned its approach and lack of a spiritual dimension. He wasn’t very surprised when Rostow changed sides later, backing war in Southeast Asia, in his words “to save them from Communism.” Dave also drew inspiration from his love of nature and the campaigns of Gandhi in India, and by getting to know his fellow workers during a summer job in a Maine factory.


 


In his autobiography, From Yale to Jail, Dave recounted an incident at Yale that changed his life. It happened after a football game between Yale and Georgia. Tensions between the Yale students and “townies” were high. Imagine Dave and his friends taking home a section of the goal posts as a trophy of victory. In any case, they were set upon by some local toughs. In the ensuing fight, Dave decked one of them – and then experienced revulsion at what he’d done. Here’s how he explains what happened:


 


“The lesson I learned was as simple, direct and unarguable as the lesson a child learns the first time it puts its hand on a red-hot stove: Don’t ever do it again! But the pain I felt was a spiritual pain, as if I had suddenly emerged from a fit of anger and realized that I had pressed a child’s hand onto the stove. I knew that I would never be able to strike another human being again.”


 


That moment also showed him something else: how sadness and shame can lead to love and change. He stayed with the young man he had hit, apologized, and walked him home. As they parted, Dave felt what he called “the power of our unexpected and unusual bonding.” The impact of the encounter stayed with him.


 


ON THE ROAD


 


The world eventually came to know Dave Dellinger as an activist dedicated to nonviolence. But the path he took had many turns, and at one point, as a student, he was tempted to pick up a gun. The year was 1936, and he was on his way to Oxford University on a fellowship to get a doctorate. As he recalled it later, during the sea voyage the ship’s radio announced that Francisco Franco had launched a military attack on the Popular Front, which had come to power the previous February.


 


Arriving in Spain, he saw the non-hierarchical communal settlements established by the Front and stayed at the People’s University in Madrid. As Franco’s soldiers advanced toward the city, he even considered joining the resistance. If his friends were going to die, he thought, he was ready, too. He also believed that the help of the Communists, who had mostly come from other countries, might lead to victory. But in the end, he couldn’t ignore the grim reality: Communists were shooting Trotskyists and both were shooting anarchists. In fact, while he was in Barcelona, some anarchists even fired at his car.


 


He didn’t choose the gun. Instead, he came to a conclusion that has informed his activism for the 65 years since then. He puts it this way: “Whoever won in an armed struggle, it wouldn’t be the people.”


 


A year later, back in the States, he hit the road. Rejecting the comfortable path before him, Dave walked out of Yale. Wearing his oldest clothes and without any cash, he traveled around the country, riding freight trains, sleeping at missions, standing in bread lines, even begging for money. Off and on, this journey continued for the next three years, following a path inspired by Francis of Assisi. In his autobiography, Dave described that experience:


 


“In a way, my whole trip was a first experimental step down the road Francis had traveled, rejected his heritage as the son of a rich Florentine merchant, living the life of the poor, even kissing the leper. Now as I felt a wonderful new sense of freedom, it was Francis who filled my thoughts.


 


“Oddly, the image that came to mind was not of Francis doing what I was doing and what the poor often have to do, asking for help from those who consider themselves superior. Rather it was the image of Francis kissing the leper. I didn’t kiss anyone and no one kissed me, but I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. Finally I concluded…that I had become the leper. By unashamedly approaching the healthy and asking for food, I was affirming the rights of society’s lepers. And I was asking the people I approached for more than money or food. I was asking them to come a little closer to being Saint Francis…”


 


LOVE, WAR, AND PRISON


 


The 1940s were not easy times to oppose war and promote nonviolence. Pacifists found themselves alone as most liberals and leftists in the anti-war movement supported “preparedness,” collective security, and, once Germany attacked Russia, entry into the conflict. Eerily enough, some of the same terminology and arguments are being used today.


 


Back in 1940, Dave was living and working in Harlem, while studying at the Union Theological Seminary. He wasn’t planning to become a minister, but did hope to deepen his radical insights. However, when the conscription law was passed in 1940, he opted not to accept an exemption because of his status as a seminarian. Instead, he and several others refused to register for the draft.


 


His reasons for opposing the unfolding “world war” were complicated. He knew about 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 having an exemption when so many others, especially Blacks, didn’t want to kill but were given no choice.


 


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


 


But not in that order. First, he was sentenced to a year in the Danbury federal prison. Early on, because he sat in the Black section during a Saturday movie, he was put in solitary confinement. And then, when he refused to answer to a number or submit to harassment by a guard, he was thrown into the notorious Hole.


 


Some prisoners were broken by the experience. But for Dave, it led to another breakthrough. He explained:


 


“For no reason I can explain, I began to discover how little it mattered where you are or what anyone does to you. I was sure that what I had done to get there was right and somehow the longer I was there the better I felt. Maybe that wasn’t it at all, but anyway I never felt better in my life, even if I was shivering and wished I had something to eat, or a cigarette…


 


“I felt warm inside and filled all over with love for everyone, everyone I knew and everyone I didn’t know, for plants, fish, animals, even bankers, generals, prison guards and lying politicians…Why did I feel so good? Was it God? Or approaching death? Or just the way life is supposed to be if we weren’t so busy trying to make it something else?


 


“It didn’t matter why. The only thing that mattered was that it was happening.”


 


After getting out of the Hole, Dave was targeted as a troublemaker. But his commitment to ending racial segregation in the prison brought him new allies, especially among the Black prisoners. There were more threats and more days in solitary. Dave didn’t wavered, even when Communist prisoners — who at first considered him a hero – then decided he was a “fascist coward” once Germany invaded the Soviet Union.


 


Shortly after getting out of prison, Dave was invited to speak at a National Conference of the Student Christian Movement in Ohio. But before that happened, Pearl Harbor was attacked and World War II was fully underway. It was hard to know what would happen next. He might even be arrested in the middle of his anti-war talk! Instead, he got an enthusiastic response, and several requests for interviews. One of the students interviewers was a Betty Peterson, from Pacific College in Newburgh, Oregon.


 


She also opposed the draft, had worked with Mexican migrant workers, and was interested in Dave’s commune experience. While their first meeting lasted only minutes, it was obviously enough to make a big impression. Dave immediately called a woman who wanted to marry him and called it off. On February 4, 1942, only a month after they had met, Dave and Elizabeth were married.


 


BUILDING A MOVEMENT


 


Throughout the war years, Dave, Elizabeth, and their comrades in the peace movement resisted repression — and risked arrest — as they continued to struggle against the tide. A demonstration at the Capitol in 1943 led to another prison term for Dave, 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 that time, ending the censorship of mail and reading material.


 


By the time Dave was released in 1945, Elizabeth had given birth to their first child, Evan Patchen, and was living at a Pennsylvania apple farm. Before long, between picking apples and working on a nearby dairy farm, Dave had teamed up with Bill Kuenning and Ralph DiGia to launch Direct Action, a magazine reflecting their militant opposition to war and faith in the power on nonviolent action. Dave’s first editorial looked at the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He wrote:


 


“Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atomized at a time when the Japanese were suing desperately for peace. The American leaders were acting with almost inconceivable treachery by denying that they had received requests for peace…The bombs were exploded on congested cities filled with civilians. There was not even the slightest military justification, because the military outcome of the war had been decided months earlier…


 


“The war for total brotherhood must be a nonviolent war carried on by methods worthy of the ideals we seek to serve. The acts we perform must be the responsible acts of free men, not the irresponsible acts of conscripts under orders. We must fight against institutions but not against people.


 


“There must be strikes, sabotage and seizure of public property now being held by private owners. There must be civil disobedience of laws which are contrary to human welfare. But there must be also an uncompromising practice of treating everyone, including the worst of our opponents, with all the respect and decency that he merits as a fellow human being. We can expect to face tear gas, clubs and bullets. But we must refuse to hate, punish or kill in return…”


 


TOWARD LIBERATION


 


It’s common to hear that the 50s, and even the early 60s, were times of conformity and repression. The Korean War, McCarthy Era, and the Cold War, plus the deadening banality of mainstream society. Father “knew” best, and the “American dream” was in full regalia. But there were storms brewing beneath illusion of calm, and Dave was part of that shift in the winds of change. Here’s just a taste of what he was up to:


 


Direct Action was succeeded by Alternative, Individual Action, and finally Liberation, a venerable magazine which lasted for 20 years. Countless writers, some unknown and others prominent from the 60s onward, contributed to this groundswell of radical thought. Their names include A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Sid Lens, Barbara Deming, Paul Goodman, Staughton Lynd, Kay Boyle, David McReynolds, Tom Hayden, Tod Gitlin, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, E.F. Schumacher, Robin Morgan,, Thomas Merton, Howard Zinn, Art Kinoy, Murray Bookchin, Allen Ginsberg, Noam Chomsky, and many more.


 


And despite how that time is depicted, there were antinuclear demonstrations and civil disobedience actions, like a 44 person, two-week fast in Washington in April 1950 against the Hydrogen bomb. There were marches and Freedom Rides in the south, solidarity actions to bridge the people-to-people gap between Cuba and US after 1959, protests with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement, and a series of nonviolent committees and organizations – Peacemakers, the Committee for Nonviolent Revolution, the Fellowship of Intentional Communities, and, of course, the War Resisters League.


 


Through this period, Dave and Elizabeth lived and worked in an intentional community, as well as with the Libertarian Press. They were also working internationally, with campaigns of liberation in Europe and the colonized world. It was called the Third World, but we know what that really meant.


 


FROM THE PENTAGON TO CHICAGO


 


Here’s how Dave described the tumultuous period leading up to the March on the Pentagon in 1967, the historic protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and the show trial of the Chicago Eight in 1969:


 


“The anti-Vietnam War movement did not start in a vacuum. It was the offspring of previous movements for justice and peace. And like a lot of children it had to fight its way against the efforts of its parents to prevent it from straying too far outside the compromises they themselves had made with conventional society. In some ways, I was cast in the role of being an older brother in these conflicts, someone who was old enough to be importuned to side with the parents but was more frequently drawn to stand with the rebellious kids.”


 


Everyone should have that kind of older brother! Going up against the national “peace leaders” of his day, Dave, along with Ralph DiGia, Dave McReynolds, Joan Baez and a handful of others, often sided with the SDS – Students for a Democratic Society, which came on strong beginning in 1965 with a call for a national antiwar demonstration. After that demonstration, Dave was jailed again — and threatened with charges of treason. But when some of his fellow prisoners heard about that, they refused bail unless the threats were dropped. Faced with true solidarity, the government backed off.


 


The next year Dave visited Vietnam for the first time, personally witnessing the ruthless conduct of the war, visiting with US POWs, and getting the Vietnamese side of the story from Ho Chi Minh. Dave says Ho never spoke harshly on Americans, although he did criticize the US preoccupation with money and materialism. They talked about Harlem – Ho had worked for a Brooklyn family after World War I – the poverty of Black people, and how anti-Communist paranoia had led the US into a series of arrogant mistakes. Before they parted, Ho Chi Minh offered a final message:


 


“We do not want to humiliate the Americans or make it difficult for them to return home. If they finally decide to let us live in peace and to take their soldiers home where they can lead safe and honorable lives, we will have celebrations for them. Our girls will bring flowers to the boats as they get ready to sail away and our musicians will pay songs for them.


 


Dave didn’t completely buy that, but he was captivated and impressed by the revolutionary leader. And the visit did lead to a series of other visits Dave helped organize until the war ended.


 


By 1967, the death toll in Vietnam was rising, and the antiwar movement was gaining incredible momentum. People were burning draft cards, and a link was finally being forged between antiwar activists and leaders within the civil rights movement. Dave also played a crucial role in that alliance. As the slogan for the October, 1967 protests, march, and civil disobedience in Washington urged, it was time to move “From Protest to Resistance.” And that included a dramatic plan to shut down the Pentagon.


 


The impacts of those events, and others like them around the world, are still being felt today. By 1968 — From Berkeley to Prague, in Mexico City and in Paris — a hunger for change filled the air. Even the media and some US leaders couldn’t deny what was happening. Senator William Fullbright called it a “spiritual rebellion” of the young against a betrayal of national values. Returning from Vietnam, Walter Cronkite said the only “rational way out” was to negotiate a settlement. But the FBI and the Nixon administration had other plans – namely, to disrupt and neutralize the antiwar movement through a covert counter-intelligence program.


 


In March, Eugene McCarthy, an opponent on the war, won 42 percent of the primary vote in New Hampshire. Soon afterward, Robert Kennedy entered the race and President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek another term. On April 4, a rifle shot range out in Memphis, ending the life of Martin Luther King. Rebellions erupted in 125 cities, leading to 20,000 arrests, and the mobilization of federal troops. In June, Kennedy was assassinated. By July, there had been over 220 major demonstrations on campuses across the country. On the other side of the world, in Vietnam, 10,000 US soldiers had died since the beginning of the year, more than in all of 1967.


 


And then, the Democrats held their national convention. According to Mayor Richard Daley, it was protesters and activists like Dave, Tom Hayden, John Froines, and the others who became known as the Chicago Eight who incited the riots that erupted in Chicago. But Daniel Walker, who produced the official report afterward, concluded that it was clearly a police riot. He described in detail the indiscriminate violence of the cops, often inflicted on people who had disobeyed no order and made no threats. Millions of people needed no convincing. They’d seen it on TV.


 


Over the next year, a climate of repression blanketed the nation. Attorney General Richard Kleindeinst called antiwar activists “ideological criminals,” and the FBI’s COINTELPRO was taking hold. Both the War – and the resistance to it — were still escalating. Nixon was in the White House, and the establishment was desperate for scapegoats.


 


Eight activists were indicted — Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, John Froines, Lee Weiner, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, Bobby Seale, and Dave Dellinger. The basic charges were:


 


a) traveling across state lines “with the intent to incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in, and carry on a riot”


 


b) to teach and demonstrate the use, application, and making of incendiary devices to further civil disorder, and


 


c) a conspiracy between the eight to do these things.


 


There was no conspiracy – except the one the government was cooking up. In fact, some of the defendants didn’t even know one another, and, as Abbie Hoffman used to say, “We couldn’t agree on lunch.” But they knew the charges were really a distraction — persecution in disguise. So they decided to put the government and its court on trial – rather than win on a technicality – and to use any means at hand. They were about to make history.


 


The trial ran five months, from September 26, 1969 to the following February. There was no Court TV then, so we don’t have a visual record. But we do have transcripts, and many of the key moments made news across the country. Some were absurdly funny, like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman showing up for court in judges robes or the day the defendants rolled in a cake to celebrate Bobby Seale’s birthday. When Judge Hoffman ruled the cake out of order, Bobby replied: “You can arrest a cake, but you can’t arrest the revolution.”


 


At other times, the trial took on the character of an inquisition. And perhaps never so clearly as on October 29, when Bobby Seale was carried into the court, bound and gagged, his ankles and wrists chained to the legs of his chair, for demanding his right to defend himself.


 


 


 


Many years later, John Tucker, a lawyer who was involved in the case, recalled one of the most dramatic moments. “As the trial ended,” he explained, “and everyone knew Judge Hoffman was going to hold the defendants and their lawyers in contempt of court and send them to prison, we were asked to represent them in seeking bail pending appeal. My first assignment was to attend court while the contempt citations were being issued in order to make the appropriate objections and motions to protect the record in case Bill Kunstler and Len Weinglass were imprisoned before they could do so. Thus, I was in the courtroom on Saturday, February 14, 1970 when the judge began the contempt proceedings by reciting his charges against the first named defendant, David Dellinger. ‘What occurred next was the most extraordinary and emotionally draining event I experienced in a courtroom in 30 years as a trial lawyer.”


 


By law, the judge was required to allow David to address the court before passing sentence. He began be asking, “I hope you will do me the courtesy not to interrupt me while I am talking.”


 


“I won‘t interrupt you as long as you are respectful,” Judge Julius Hoffman replied.


 


“Well, I will talk about the facts and the facts don’t always encourage false respect. Now I want to point out first of all that the first two contempts cited against me concerned …the war against Vietnam, and racism in this country, the two issues this country refuses to solve, refuses to take seriously.”


 


Hoffman ordered him to stop, but Dave was on a roll. “You see,” he said, “that’s one of the reasons I have needed to stand up and speak anyway, because you have tried to keep what you call politics, which means the truth, out of this courtroom, just as the prosecution has.”


 


Ignoring the judge’s command that he sit down and shut up, Dave continued. “You want us to be like good Germans supporting the evils of our decade and then when we refused to be good Germans and came to Chicago and demonstrated, now you want us to be like good Jews, going quietly and politely to the concentration camps while you and this court suppress freedom and the truth. And the fact is that I am not prepared to do that.


 


You want us to stay in our place like black people were supposed to stay in their place, like poor people were supposed to stay in their place, like people with formal education are supposed to stay in their place, like women are supposed to stay in their place, like children are supposed to stay in their place, like lawyers are supposed to stay in their places. It is a travesty on justice and if you had any sense at all you would know that the record that you read condemns you and not us. And it will be one of thousands and thousands of rallying points for a new generation of Americans who will not put up with tyranny, will not put up with a facade of democracy without the reality.


 


“I sat here and heard that man Mr. Foran say evil, terrible, dishonest things that even he could not believe in. I heard him say that and you expect me to be quiet and accept that without speaking up. People no longer will be quiet. People are going to speak up. I am an old man and I am just speaking feebly and not too well, but I reflect the spirit that will echo throughout the world.


 


At this point, according to the transcript, there was applause and “complete disorder in the courtroom.” It was no exaggeration. Tucker recalled. “As two marshals tried to hustle David out of the courtroom, his daughter Michelle, who was 13 at the time, stood up and screamed something like ‘Leave my dad alone.’ Her sister Natasha also stood and screamed, and several marshals, there must have been at least 20 in the courtroom, plowed into the audience and jumped on the two girls. David yelled, ‘leave my daughters alone,’ shucked off the marshals like they were a couple of annoying mosquitoes and rushed to his daughters aid, joined by Abbie Hoffman and a spectator who leapt over two rows of benches onto the back of one of the marshals. An army of marshals grabbed Dave to drag him away, and the courtroom erupted. 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.”


 


A NONVIOLENT WARRIOR


 


It’s been more than three decades since the riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention and trial of the Chicago eight, and almost as long since the end of the Vietnam War. Dave kept busy during all that time, right up until the recent US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s hard to even catalogue all the work, all the causes. Work with Native Americans and in international solidarity movements from Nicaragua to Japan. Joining in countless protests and hunger strikes. Civil disobedience like the Winooski 44 sit-in to stop war in Central America. Meetings with prisoners and working for prison justice. Helping to build support for independent politics. Standing with new generations of activists in affinity groups, opposing the nuclear arms race, war and atrocities in Central Amerca, the Persian Gulf, and Yugoslavia, and calling a halt to corporate globalization.


 


For over 60 years, whenever US racism and imperialism raised their ugly heads, Dave was there — the “energizer bunny” of the global movement for justice and freedom. His efforts were all the more heroic for being nonviolent. Repeatedly putting himself is harm’s way, he often managed, almost miraculously, to turn antagonists into allies with the moral force of his convictions.


 


As the US again went to war in October, 2001, hundreds of activists and artists gathered in Burlington, Vermont, for a celebration of his life and nonviolent work. It was a long overdue tribute to this remarkable nonviolent warrior. True to form, Dave requested that the event focus not just on him, but also on the many struggles for peace and social justice to which he so completely committed himself. Nevertheless, the stories told that night underlined the hopes, passions and fierce commitments that had shaped his life. Members of his family were on hand, as well as old friends like Howard Zinn, Dennis Brutus, Cora Weiss, Art Kinoy, John Froines, Staughton Lynd, Ralph DiGia, Norma Becker, and many more. At the end, Dave rose to speak, urging us to act with love and value community.


 


Near the end of his life, struggling with hearing problems and advancing Alzheimer’s, Dave composed a touching poem that described his approach to life:


 


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.


 


 


 


Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom (TF), a world affairs magazine whose board of directors Dave co-chaired for more than a decade, and worked closely with him over the last 20 years.


 


As a tribute to Dave and Elizabeth Peterson, TF has produced the audio documentary, Nonviolent Warriors, including testimonials, dramatic scenes, and Dave’s own words. To learn more, visit. www.TowardFreedom.com.

Leave a comment