David Dellinger: The Life and Times of a Nonviolent Revolutionary

Andrew E. Hunt, David Dellinger: The Life and Times of a Nonviolent Revolutionary (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

Nobody ever said it would be easy” is the time-worn reminder in the movement for peace and justice when the moment has become miserable. Leadership is the light that somehow is found to fill the gap. Perhaps you remember the song, “Where have all the flowers gone?” These days we may almost be singing, “Where have all the nonviolent movement leaders gone?”

Well-presented by Andrew E. Hunt, this is the first biography of David Dellinger, one of the important 20th-century American moral revolutionary leaders. His life of speaking, writing, and living in action for the emergence of nonviolence as a public force, is a welcome reminder of how the integration of open-minded receptivity to truth and stubborn resistance to falsehood can move, however wrenchingly, toward constructive life-affirming social change. Given the many reasons we encounter each day to forget our better selves, reflection on the development of an inspired activist who described his own path in his autobiography as “From Yale to Jail,” may well have its use-value.

Professor Hunt has done his research well, using extensive oral history interviews and a wide range of documentary sources. His work shows us how the son of an Appalachian farm boy turned Republican Boston lawyer came to take the paradoxical American class values of his family into transformative expression: “I always felt that my politics were in a sense a carrying-out of the kind of attitude that he instilled in me toward human beings” was Dellinger’s reflection on his memories of his father.

The “American dream” of happiness through decency and prosperity has always been backed up by military dominance and expansionism -– from the ethnic cleansing of the Pequot in the 1640s to the green zone of Baghdad almost four centuries later. Dellinger’s hometown of Wakefield just outside Boston and his family’s adopted homeland in the North Carolina Blue Ridge country both had deeply painful indigenous histories. In his later years, David fasted on Columbus Day, in celebration of the indigenous people who had survived the onslaught of the American way of life.

Hunt’s graceful and detailed account of Dellinger’s emergence deserves recapping. At Yale, David was a Christian humanist, admiring St. Francis of Assisi. He joined in student organizing work, and was moved by reading of the nonviolent philosophy and campaigns of Gandhi in India. Arguing Marxism with no less a communicant than the young Walt Rostow, he rejected its approach as mechanical and lacking in the fullness of humanity, while respecting and allying with the dedication and effectiveness of its grassroots activists.

David had a lifelong depth of feeling for nature, and for the joyful physical communion that enlightens athletic competition. It took major repeated injury to his leg to force him out of track running, which had the effect of liberating him from the “myopic ambitions” of potential national or even Olympic championship.

Dellinger’s ambitions had refocused, segueing toward a more universal dream of decency and equality, rejecting war. After college, he briefly connected with Socialist Party leadership under Norman Thomas, but the militant personal opening to truth through nonviolent thought and action was more characteristic of his political heart.

He studied at Oxford, visited Spain, Italy and Germany in the fearful year of 1936, reinforcing his antifascist sensibilities, then returned to New Haven, plunging into pro-immigration and labor organizing, as well as life in shantytowns and hobo camps. From philosophical conviction, he went to direct experience of economic violence. Now his path was set, away from the accepted norms of his upbringing.

Seeking to explore the roots of his Christianity, Dellinger entered Union Theological Seminary, found the celebrated Reinhold Niebhur a “grievous disappointment,” and with a few fellow students started a pacifist community service and action communal apartment in Harlem, and then the Newark Ashram, in New Jersey.

When the draft came in 1940, the militant students were ready. Although allowed deferment as — seminarians, they refused to register or seek conscientious objector status -– in part to reject the class privilege they were offered. Two hard sentences in Danbury Correctional Institution and then Lewisburg Penitentiary proved Dellinger to be a courageous and exemplary leader, enduring repeated solitary confinement and debilitating hunger strikes in struggle against Jim Crow policies and extreme authoritarianism. His marriage to Betty Peterson, a like-minded pacifist, began between the terms of imprisonment, and five children followed in short order.

On his release, well aware that freedom of the press resides in those who own printing presses, he managed to acquire one, and with fellow nonviolent activists produced a series of radical publications, culminating in the influential Liberation magazine, which helped set the tone for the broad movement of the sixties. The growing Dellinger family lived and worked in the intentional community they formed and maintained with co-workers in rural New Jersey from 1947-68.

Hunt meticulously details Dellinger’s steadfast persistence in blazing the public path against war and injustice throughout the sixties. Starting with his trip to Cuba in the early Castro days, and organizing before and after the Kennedy-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, supporting the youthful organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the South, calling early for national action against the US intervention in Vietnam, joining in the Committee for Nonviolent Action’s Quebec-Washington-Guantánamo Walk for Peace, which bridged peace, civil rights, and Cuban solidarity, and serving as one of the few counselors from the older generation sought out by the Students for a Democratic Society in their Economic Research and Action Project, which recapitulated some of his own early work in Newark as a student, Dellinger and the voice of Liberation were everywhere in action.

The seemingly interminable decade-long struggle against the growing war in Vietnam was emerging. Dellinger moved with its ever-shifting core. From National Coordinating Committee, to Fifth Avenue Peace Parade, traveling to Vietnam, returning to anti-war Mobilization (Mobe) and another Mobe, and into Chicago, to confront the Democratic National Convention, in those days when a major-party convention offered some hope of bringing change, Dellinger was co-chairing, Dellinger was speaking, and Dellinger was holding disparate factions together.

These were the heaviest of times in the peace movement. Extremism was rising, violent rhetoric and street battles escalating, with the war grinding on. Dellinger was the senior strategic coordinator and a key tactical leader during the bitter and conflicted demonstrations at the Pentagon and in Chicago. Reconstructing these difficult scenes, sometimes minute to minute, Hunt’s work is at its best. Dellinger’s wasn’t. Confrontations got out of control. As Gandhi had discovered, nonviolent direct action must be very carefully prepared and framed. Turning rage into critical love may be possible, but some of these street actions were too fevered for that.

Dellinger had empathy with the furious youth, and was responsible to the liberal and pacifist opponents of the war. These vibes didn’t meld well. The authorities grew savage, heads were bloodied, anti-war people rejected each other. Even though victories for the movement were declared, the energy was declining. So was the conflict in Southeast Asia. Dellinger wound up toward the end of the war on the Committee for Liaison, brokering with Hanoi on behalf of American war prisoners, while denouncing the Nixon Administration’s vindictive bombing of North Vietnam.

Although well-respected on the left, Dellinger became a public figure mainly through the 1969 trial of the Chicago 8, on the charge of inciting and participating in a riot. In the courtroom he struggled fiercely to put the government on trial, and physically defended Bobby Seale from the attack of marshals. At 53, Dellinger was the senior defendant, appearing in a jacket and tie, facing down the destructiveness of the American system by embodying its own best values. It is something to be remembered.

Betty Peterson and David Dellinger: their personal and family life with five children was at times so fully joyful but was also intensely strained. It is remarkable that the family was able to survive at all, through the onslaught of movement demands on time and attention, energy and consciousness. David lost a younger brother and they both lost a son to early deaths. Betty had to make do, holding the home together without him, again and again, and it endured, until exhaustion and the feminist wave opened a breach. Apart and together and again apart and together, they persevered and unlearned and learned to find a path that could be shared, into their last bucolic and yet politically active Vermont days.

In characterizing Dellinger’s legacies, Hunt points to deeply humane qualities: moral dissent, protest, optimism in the face of adversity, patient organizing and outreach, accepting imprisonment, all in lifelong struggle for truth and loving community, both locally and globally. He did not wish to be a star or hero, yet it somewhat happened to him anyway.

Dellinger is also important for his consistency in working to connect generations of activists and radicals. The dissenting youth of the sixties, seeking to overcome the forces of superiority and hegemony at home and abroad, could find little support on the adult left. David Dellinger was a notable exception. One can hope this book will carry his work a bit further, and serve as an informative reassurance and inspiration to guide some in the next generation of radical activists. New flowers of nonviolent leadership are yet to bloom and, you may sing, the next great movement will in time emerge.

Still, the ghastly war system goes on with its destruction. The deeper goal of developing values for the sustainability of human life on earth is gaining in recognition. Information technology is changing social, political, economic and cultural realities. Andrew E. Hunt’s biography of David Dellinger is a positive contribution.

Reviewed by Mike Vozick
City University of New York

This entry was posted in 43, Volume 21, No. 1. Bookmark the permalink.