Dellinger: Remembering a Nonviolent Warrior (6/04)


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, 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.


With such a pedigree, it was hard to see why Dave 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 young 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 America’s Gandhi, advancing the theory of pacifist resistance through his words and deeds.


On May 25, 2004, at 88, Dave 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 convictions.


On the Path


Dave was mostly known as 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 Dave questioned its approach and lack of a spiritual dimension. (Later, 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 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 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.


On 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 Francisco 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.”


Back in the US, 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


The 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 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 US 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 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.


Dave 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.


“I 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.”


After 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.


Shortly 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, only a month after they met, Dave and Elizabeth married.


Building a Movement


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 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 this time, ending the censorship of mail.


By 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 on nonviolent action. That was succeeded by Alternative, Individual Action, and finally Liberation, a venerable magazine for 20 years. Countless writers, many prominent from the 60s onward, contributed to a new groundswell of radical thought.


Dave’s 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. …


“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. …”


It’s common to hear that the 50s, and even the early 60s, 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 US 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.


“The 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 folded.


The next year, Dave visited Vietnam for the first time, personally witnessing the ruthless conduct of the war, talking with US POWs, and getting the Vietnamese side from Ho Chi Minh. They 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 US into a series of arrogant mistakes. The visit led to a series of trips Dave helped organize until the war ended in 1975. His people-to-people diplomacy helped secure the release of captured US servicemen.


Showdown in Chicago


In 1968 — from Berkeley to Prague, in Mexico City and Paris — a hunger for change filled the air. Even mainstream media and some US 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 rang 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, more than 220 major demonstrations had happened on campuses across the country. In Vietnam, 10,000 US soldiers had died since the beginning of the year, more than in all of 1967. At that point, the Democrats held their nominating convention.


According to Chicago’s strongman Mayor Richard Daley, “agitators” like Dave, 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 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.


Eight activists, including Dave, 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 Abbie 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, Dave 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, 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, Bobby said: “You can arrest a cake, but you can’t arrest the revolution.” But sometimes the trial looked like an inquisition, perhaps never so clearly as on October 29, when Blank Panther Bobby Seale was carried into the court, bound and gagged, for demanding his right to defend himself. 


The following February, as Judge Hoffman began post-trial contempt proceedings, Dave was allowed to address the court. It was an extraordinary moment. “I 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.”


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 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. And the fact is that I am not prepared to do that.” The marshals started moving in.


“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 of 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.”


And as 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.”


Applause 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


Long 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 releases of Native American leader Leonard Peltier and Black journalist Mumia Abu Jamal, whom he considered political prisoners convicted of murder on trumped-up evidence.


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


For 12 years, beginning in 1990, Dave was board co-chair of Toward Freedom (TF), a progressive foundation based in Burlington, VT, and wrote frequently for its flagship publication. In 1993, Pantheon Books published his long-awaited, often revelatory autobiography, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter. It was recently released by Catholic Worker Books. His other books include Revolutionary Nonviolence, More Power Than We Know, Beyond Survival, and Vietnam Revisited: Covert Action to Invasion to Reconstruction.


Dave remained engaged in life and interested in politics until his final months. In 2001, for instance, at age 85, he got up at 2:45 a.m. 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.


In October 2001, some of his friends organized a celebration of his life in Burlington. It was a long overdue tribute 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. True to form, Dave 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 Dave’s life. TF preserved the evening on a CD set, Nonviolent Warriors: Dave Dellinger and the Power of the People.


About a year ago, after a TF meeting, Dave 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, Dave often said: “Be the change you wish to see.” He did just that, and it was inspiring to behold.


Greg Guma edits Toward Freedom, a progressive magazine also available online at, and is the author of Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do and the new play, Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities), available on CD and airing on radio. He worked closely with Dave for 20 years.