I’m not the most “get out and rock the vote” type of cat, you know? I’m also not totally opposed to voting and certainly not anti. I’ve participated in and seen first hand the impact of action through voting- particularly as it relates to local, regional, and state elections. All of my dissent, fueled by young angst and logical (to me) arguments for not only the often seeming pointlessness and ineffectiveness of it all- but also the historic and perpetual exploitive nature of both major parties upon Black people and other ethnic groups- is humbled and halted in the presence of those who lived the history I audaciously critique.
Fmr. Congressman Ron Dellums personifies that ethereal, walking monument, historian, social justice advocate meets philosopher cloth that stops you in your tracks and commands without asking that you consider his position on matters of the day. The matter of the day this day being an American presidential election that is as of grand importance as much as it is absurd, made me want to tap the wisdom of ‘The People’s Congressman’ (my term, not his) to get and share with all of you his input on the presidential race and the importance of civic engagement as he see’s it. I was especially interested in his perspective as it relates to the Democratic nominee being a woman. Per usual, at 80 years young, he didn’t disappoint.
You were the first to do a lot of what you accomplished in your political career. I’ve thought of you and others as a lot of firsts are unfolding in this election... Can we begin with me just throwing out the word “first” and letting you speak freely as it relates to the election?
Sure. I have been a lot of “firsts” on the national political stage, including the first African American congressman from the Bay Area and one of the first Democratic Socialists in Congress. From where I sit, I am greatly moved by witnessing the first woman nominated by a major political party to become the next President of the United States. The Democratic Party has been my party over 50 years, where I waged my battle to change America and change the world from its progressive wing.
To see my Party and Hillary Clinton leading in this historic moment is exceptional for me. My mind travels back to the Bay Area of the 60s when all of the progressive movements emerged in close proximity and great synonymity, including when women stood up and taught us that being Black or Latino, Asian American or Native American or gay aren’t the only ways to be oppressed. You can be a woman and be oppressed. Our sisters challenged all of us to understand the need to embrace freedom and justice for all peoples.
No one said this better than my dear friend Shirley Chisholm (a true legend of firsts!) who chose to run for the presidency during the 1972 Democratic primary, and who in my opinion paved the way for today’s historic moment. I remember standing with her in the Miami Convention Hall—it was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had. I also remember when some of my brethren of the Congressional Black Caucus asked the following question of Shirley Chisholm. They said, “Shirley, what do you consider to be most oppressive, being Black or being a woman?” Her response was powerful and immediate. She said, “That’s easy. Being a woman because even you brothers oppress me.” Needless to say no one asked her that question again.
As a man enthused by and an advocate for women in the political sphere, do you identify as a feminist?
I’lI say this: I recall entering Congress in 1971 and being called a “feminist” by members of my own party as if it was a dirty word. They didn’t realize that I wore that label as a badge of honor. I reflect on my journey from Berkeley peacenik to the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and selecting in 1993 the first woman staff director of the Committee. I remember walking into the Committee room and announcing my appointment of Marilyn Elrod as the staff director. As I looked around the room, I saw all the women crying as they never thought they would live to see a woman being appointed as the director of one of the most powerful House committees.
My mind and heart go to the many brilliant and fierce women who persevered to advance the very simple, and yet radical proposition that half of humanity should be bestowed the same rights and guarantees as the other half, people like Congresswoman Bella Azbug, Pat Schroeder or Gloria Steinem, June Jordan, and Hillary Clinton. They worked tirelessly for working families, for ending gender discrimination, and for protecting a woman’s reproductive choice.
Q: Do you connect those moments to now, especially after the DNC a few weeks back?
Yes! These courageous and brilliant leaders and millions of activists over a century of struggle were there in body or spirit in the Philadelphia Convention Hall lifting up their sister in this defining moment for America. Here we have Hillary Rodham Clinton who said, “I embrace this progressive platform. I embrace ending college debt. I will fight to overturn Citizens United and restore the sanctity of democracy. I will work to advance racial justice and criminal justice reform.” My heart began to swell as I thought of the long journey of history and struggle to this moment when the glass ceiling was shattered not just for women but for all Americans who have been excluded from this country’s prosperity and promise of justice.
And in that context, Hillary Clinton reached out to young people and said, “Join me at the table. And let’s together make the world a better place.”
I am so blessed that I have been able to live long enough to see a woman nominated for President. My great hope now is that people all over this country, especially the young people, will see what I see—the significance of this moment. And to take this moment, run with it, elect Hillary Rodham Clinton, and stay engaged after the election. Our progressive movement and the next president need you to remain engaged post election. As I humbly know from my own experience, that’s how change happens.
What is your response to a growing disenchanted base of young people, potential voters, that amidst Bernie Sanders’ loss in the primary and a sleuth of other factors are opting out of the voting season.
Come, let us take our seats at the table. Exercise your right as well as your obligation as Americans. Let’s work together to change America and change the world. The fate of our children and our children’s children hang in the balance.