Dave Dellinger: Being the Change


May 25, 2004, at 88, Dave Dellinger departed this world among family
and close friends in Central Vermont from pneumonia-induced heart
failure. He had been living in Vermont for almost 25 years, most
recently in the Montpelier area. Whenever racism, imperialism, or
injustice raised its head, Dave was there, his efforts all the more
remarkable for their compassion, clarity, and humor. Putting himself
in harm’s way, he sometimes managed, almost miraculously, to
turn antagonists into allies with the gentle moral force of his

passing now, at a time of deep national division and international
tension, serves as a reminder that principled dissent and active,
civil resistance to illegitimate authority can change history. As
Howard Zinn said at a 2001 tribute to him, 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’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 and his
father’s ancestors went back to North Carolina—before
the Revolution. In fact, Benjamin Franklin was a direct ancestor,
by way of a grandnephew and a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. 

such a pedigree, it was hard to see why Dellinger would 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 man from the Boston suburb of Wakefield took a less traveled
path from the start, living with the poor, attending seminary, and
refusing to register for the draft at the brink of World War II.
Then, and later, he went to jail for his beliefs. By the 1960s,
he was a legendary figure, able to forge an alliance between anti-war
activists and civil rights leaders. He was a U.S. version of Gandhi,
advancing the theory of pacifist resistance through his words and

On the Path 


was mostly known as a nonviolent anti-war 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, Dave saw something
different ahead. He’d been picking up ideas from philosophy
and economics, from radical campus Christians and college friends
like Walt Rostow. Rostow was advocating communism at the time, but
Dellinger questioned its approach and lack of a spiritual dimension.
(Later, when Rostow backed war in Southeast Asia “to save them
from communism,” Dave said he wasn’t too surprised.) He
also drew inspiration from nature, the campaigns of Gandhi, and
from getting to know fellow workers during a summer job in a Maine

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 college friends were attacked
by local “toughs.” In the fight, Dave decked one—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. He stayed with the young man he’d hit, apologized,
and walked him home. As they parted, Dave felt what he called “the
power of our unexpected and unusual bonding.” The encounter’s
impact stayed with him. 

his way to begin a doctorate fellowship at Oxford University in
1936, he stopped in Spain to see the communal settlements of the
Popular Front and stayed at the People’s University in Madrid.
As Franco’s soldiers advanced on the city, he considered joining
the resistance. If his friends were going to die, he thought, he
was ready, too. 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, he came to the philosophical realization: “Whoever
won in an armed struggle, it wouldn’t be the people.” 

in the U.S., Dave 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. His journey continued intermittently for three years,
following a path inspired by Francis of Assisi. 

Love, War, and Prison 


1940s were not easy times to oppose war and promote nonviolence.
Pacifists found themselves alone, as liberals and leftists in the
anti-war movement supported “preparedness,” collective
security, and —once Germany attacked Russia— entry into
the conflict. Dave was living and working

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.  

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 having an exemption when so many
others, especially Blacks, were given no choice.  

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. 

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 Dave, it led to a personal breakthrough. 

felt warm inside,” he wrote later, “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.” 

that, Dave 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. Dave 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. 

after getting out, Dave was invited to speak at a National Conference
of the Student Christian Movement in Ohio and there met Betty Peterson,
a student at Pacific College in Oregon. She also opposed the draft,
had worked with migrant workers, and was interested in Dave’s
commune experience. On February 4, 1942, a month after they met,
Dave and Elizabeth married.  

Building a Movement 


the war years, the couple and their friends 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 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.


the time Dave was released in 1945, Elizabeth had given birth to
their first of five children and was living at a Pennsylvania apple
farm. Before long, between picking apples and working on a nearby
dairy farm, Dave 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

Individual Action

, and finally


, a venerable
magazine for 20 years. Countless writers, many prominent from the
1960s onward, contributed to a new groundswell of radical thought.

first editorial in

Direct Action

, written in September 1945,
condemned the recent atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and
outlined his philosophy: “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
atom 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… 

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.  

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…” 

common to hear that the 1950s and the early 1960s, were times of
conformity and repression. But storms were brewing behind those
calm skies, and Dave helped drum up the winds for change. There
were anti-nuclear 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. 

anti-Vietnam War movement did not start in a vacuum,” Dave
wrote. “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.”
Going up against the national “peace leaders” of his day,
Dave and a few others sided with SDS (Students for a Democratic
Society), which came on strong beginning in 1965 with a call for
a national anti- Vietnam war demonstration. After that protest,
Dave was jailed again and threatened with charges of treason. When
some of his fellow political prisoners heard, they refused bail
unless the threats were dropped. Faced with solidarity, the government

next year, Dave visited Vietnam for the first time, personally witnessing
the ruthless conduct of the war, talking with U.S. POWs, and getting
the Vietnamese side from Ho Chi Minh. Minh and Dellinger also talked
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.  His people-to-people diplomacy helped secure
the release of captured U.S. servicepeople. 

Showdown in Chicago 


1968—from Berkeley to Prague, in Mexico City and Paris—a
hunger for change filled the air. Even mainstream media and some
U.S. leaders couldn’t deny what was happening. In March, Eugene
McCarthy, an opponent of the war, won 42 percent of the presidential
primary vote in New Hampshire. Soon afterward, Robert Kennedy entered
the race and President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek another
term. Then, on April 4, a rifle shot ended the life of Martin Luther
King. Rebellions erupted in 125 cities, leading to 20,000 arrests
and the mobilization of federal troops. 

June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. By July, more than 220 major
demonstrations had happened on campuses across the country. In Vietnam,
10,000 U.S. soldiers had died since the beginning of the year, more
than in all of 1967. At that point, the Democrats held their nominating

to Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, “agitators” like
Dave 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 Klein- deinst, called
anti-war 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. 

activists, including Dave, were indicted. The main charges were
conspiracy and crossing 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.”
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. 

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, like the day the defendants rolled in a cake to
celebrate Bobby Seale’s birthday. When Judge Julius Hoffman
ruled the cake out of order, Seale said: “You can arrest a
cake, but you can’t arrest the revolution.” Sometimes
the trial looked like an inquisition, perhaps never so clearly as
on October 29, when Black Panther Bobby Seale was carried into
court bound and gagged for demanding his right to defend himself.  

following February, as Judge Hoffman began post-trial contempt proceedings,
Dave was allowed to address the court. 

will talk about the facts and the facts don’t always encourage
false respect,” he began. “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.” 

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.” 

the judge’s repeated 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. The fact
is that I am not prepared to do that.” 

marshals started moving in. 

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 of justice and if you
had any sense at all you would know that the record that you read
condemns you and not us. 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.” 

the marshals grabbed him, he declared, “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.” 

and “complete disorder in the courtroom” followed—especially
when the marshals tried to silence Dave’s daughter Michelle
and he bounded to her rescue. As John Tucker, 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.” 

A Civil Resister 


after the Chicago trial—the defendants were initially found
guilty, but the verdict was overturned by history and higher courts—Dave
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 anti-nuclear 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, he worked for the release of Native American leader
Leonard Peltier and Black journalist Mumia Abu Jamal, both of whom
he considered political prisoners convicted of murder on trumped-up

working with young people and the collective process, he never stopped
fighting for disarmament and social justice and against corporate
exploitation and war. Through it all, he taught and practiced nonviolent
civil resistance, bringing those he touched countless teaching moments. 

12 years, beginning in 1990, Dave was co-chair of Toward Freedom
(TF), a progressive foundation based in Burlington, Vermont, and
wrote frequently for its publication. In 1993, Pantheon Books published
his long-awaited, often revelatory autobiography,

From Yale to
Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter (

recently reissued
by Catholic Woker Books). His other books include:

Nonviolence, More Power Than We Know, Beyond Survival

, and

Revisited: Covert Action to Invasion to Reconstruction

remained interested in politics until his final months. In 2001,
for instance, at age 85, he got up at 2:45 AM to catch a ride to
demonstrations in Quebec City against the creation of the Free Trade
Area of the Americas (FTAA). Continuing to speak out for disarmament
and social justice, he focused more recently on prison issues and
economic alternatives to globalization.  

October 2001, some of his friends organized a celebration of his
life in Burlington and hundreds came, including family members and
old movement friends—Howard Zinn, Dennis Brutus, Cora Weiss,
Art Kinoy, John Froines, Staughton Lynd, Ralph DiGia, Ted Glick,
and many more. The touching stories revealed the friendships, hopes,
passions, and fierce determination that shaped Dave’s life. 

a year ago, after a TF meeting, Dave gave 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: 

love everyone, 

those who 

with me. 

love everyone, 

those who 

with me. 

love everyone, 

and poor, 

I love everyone 

different races, 


are indigenous, 

they live, 

this country 


love everyone, 

religion they are, 

atheists too. 

who contemplate, 

it leads them. 

love everyone, 

in my heart 

in my daily life. 

Gandhi, Dave often said: “Be the change you wish to see.”
He did just that. 


Greg Guma edits

Toward Freedom (TowardFreedom.com)

and is the
author of

Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization,
and What We Can Do

and a new play,

(and Other Un-American Activities)