The Manzanar Committee mourns the passing of former member of the U.S. House of Representatives Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland/Berkeley), who passed away on July 30 at his home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 82.
Already a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, the Oakland native quickly established himself as a champion of constitutional and human rights after his election to Congress in 1970. He remained steadfast in his beliefs in those areas during his 27-year career in the House, perhaps most notably for being at the forefront in the U.S. in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Dellums authored legislation in 1986 that would have divested American companies and individuals of assets and holdings in South Africa.
President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, but Congress overturned the veto — it was the first time that Congress overrode a presidential veto on a foreign policy-related bill in the 20th century.
Dellums was also a great friend to the Japanese American community, as he was a strong supporter of legislation calling for a public apology and a $20,000 payment to all surviving Japanese/Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated by the U.S. government in American concentration camps and other confinement sites during World War II.
Dellums was a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, which was a steadfast supporter of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
“My home was in the middle of the block on Wood Street in West Oakland,” Dellums explained during a powerful, emotional speech on the House floor during debate on the legislation on Sept. 17, 1987. “On the corner was a small grocery store owned by Japanese people. My best friend was Roland, a young Japanese child, the same age. I would never forget, Mr. Chairman, never forget, because the moment is burned indelibly upon this child’s memory, six years of age, the day the six-by trucks came to pick up my friend. I would never forget the vision of fear in the eyes of Roland, my friend, and the pain of leaving home.
“My mother, as bright as she was, try as she may, could not explain to me why my friend was being taken away, as he screamed not to go, and this six-year-old Black American child screamed back, ‘Don’t take my friend.’ No one could help me understand that, no one, Mr. Chairman. So it was not just Japanese Americans who felt the emotion, because they lived in the total context of the community and I was one of the people who lived in the community.
“So I would say to my colleagues, this is not just compensation for being interned. How do you compensate Roland, six years of age, who felt the fear that he was leaving his home, his community, his friend, Ron, the Black American, who later became a member of Congress; Roland, the Japanese American, who later became a doctor, a great healer?”
Dellums went on to emphasize that what happened to Japanese Americans was not just their own, isolated story:
“It is about how much pain was inflicted upon thousands of American people who happened to be yellow in terms of skin color, Japanese in terms of ancestry. But this Black American cries out as loudly as my Asian American brothers and sisters on this issue!
“Vote for this bill…and let Roland feel that you understood the pain in his eyes and the sorrow in his heart as he rode away screaming, not knowing when and if he would ever return.”
Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey lamented the loss of a great friend to the Japanese American community.
“Our community lost a friend and ally on Monday with the passing of Ron Dellums,” he said. “Congressman Dellums was one of the fierce, unwavering champions of redress. His personal recollection of when his friend was rounded up to be incarcerated on the floor of the United States Congress is one of the most powerful and moving speeches delivered during the fight to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
“We have to remember how instrumental Congressman Dellums and others in the Congressional Black Caucus were in the fight to pass the bill. He brought an eloquence, ferocity and directness like no other. His passion for social justice, civil rights and fairness was on full display when he spoke about the pain, fear, and misery so many experienced during the forced removal. He spoke as a friend, colleague and an equal, never patronizing, always clear and heartfelt.
“We’ve lost so many over the years. But we must pause and acknowledge that with the passing of Ron Dellums, we’ve lost a true friend. On behalf of the Manzanar Committee, I want to extend our condolences and best wishes to his wife, Cynthia, and the rest of his family and friends.”
A member of the Berkeley City Council from 1967 to 1970, Dellums served from 1971 to 1998 in the House, where he chaired the District of Columbia Committee (1979-93) and Armed Services Committee (1993-1995). He was mayor of Oakland from 2007 to 2011. In 2000, he published an autobiography, co-written with H. Lee Halterman, entitled “Lying Down with the Lions: A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power.”