Dave Dellinger

IssueOctober - November 2023
Dave Dellinger in April 1957 in the New York offices of Liberation magazine which he co-edited with four other radical pacifists: Roy Finch, Sidney Lens, AJ Muste and Bayard Rustin. PHOTO: DAVID MCREYNOLDS MCREYNOLDSPHOTOS.ORG
Feature by PN staff

‘Before reading this book, I knew and greatly admired Dave Dellinger. Or so I thought. After reading his remarkable story, my admiration changed to something more like awe. There can be few people in the world who have crafted their lives into something truly inspiring. This autobiography introduces us to one of them, with the simplicity and integrity that characterizes everything Dave has done.’ –Noam Chomsky, praising Dellinger’s autobiography, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter

Dave Dellinger (1915 – 2004), who was born into a wealthy right-wing family in Massachusetts and a Yale graduate, spent years living in poverty and riding freight trains across the US. He also drove an ambulance in revolutionary Spain, witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany, was imprisoned twice in the US as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, travelled to Cuba twice soon after the revolution there, visited North Vietnam twice during the Vietnam War (once to escort released US prisoners of war back home), led the key US anti-Vietnam War coalition known as ‘the Mobe’ (the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam) and was arrested more times than he could count.

Despite all that, Dellinger is most famous today as the oldest member of the Chicago Seven/Eight, the men prosecuted for conspiracy and incitement to riot in connection with the clashes outside the Democratic party convention in Chicago in 1968. (It was actually a police riot that was blamed on the demonstrators). All eight were acquitted of conspiracy; Dellinger and four others were convicted of inciting a riot – he was given five years in prison – but their convictions were overturned on appeal without having to serve any time inside.

Dellinger made a famous speech in the Chicago conspiracy trial, just before being sentenced. When judge Julius Hoffman tried to shut him up mid-flow, Dellinger said: ‘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, I am not prepared to do that.

‘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.’

As the marshals seized him, Dellinger called out: ‘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.’

In prison

Ralph DiGia (1914 – 2008), of the pacifist War Resisters League (US), told Democracy Now! in 2004 how he met Dellinger in prison during the Second World War.

Dellinger had been studying theology in New York (and living in a commune in Newark) when conscription was introduced in the US in 1940. He could have had an exemption. Instead, along with seven other seminarians, Dellinger became a conscientious objector (CO) and was imprisoned twice during the war.

DiGia, also a CO, was first in Danbury prison in Connecticut. Then he was moved to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where Dellinger was also being held: ‘I was with a group of people who were on strike, refusing to work and we were being held in a certain cellblock where there was the so-called tough guys. One of these so-called tough guys came to me and said: “You guys are making it tough for us in prison here, because the guards are always around, and, if you don’t get out of here, you’re going to be in trouble.” Then he walked away.

‘So, I was upset about that but, anyway, the next morning, someone came up to my cell and said: “Are you a friend of Dave Dellinger’s?” Of course, I had never met Dave [but] I knew all about him, so, I said: “Yes.” He said: “Well, listen, any friend of David is a friend of mine.” “So,” he said, “if anything happens here, you let me know, and we’ll take care of it.”

‘This fellow was not a pacifist, but he was a friend of David’s. I still hadn’t met David. I found out later that the reason that this non-pacifist, a regular prisoner, had come to me was because David had very often supported people who had gotten in trouble and he, you know, stood up for them. [Among other things, Dellinger campaigned against racial segregation in prison and against censorship of the post and of reading materials.]

‘Most of the COs stood up for each other, because they worked together, but he stood up for the other prisoners also, and he was well-liked by the other prisoners. That was because of his compassion for all people, not just conscientious objectors.

‘That was my first contact with David.’

Another US radical pacifist who worked with Dellinger was David McReynolds (1929 – 2018), also of the War Resisters League.

This was McReynolds’ verdict on Dellinger: ‘The vast Vietnam peace movement had begun to take shape by 1965. AJ Muste [see PN 2666] was the only person who could possibly have held together so broad a coalition of pacifists, liberal democrats, communists, Trotskyists, Catholics, Jews, academics, etc. Muste was an “organizational man” but also, because of his own history and his integrity, trusted by all sides.

‘When Muste died early in 1967, Dellinger succeeded him in the difficult task of holding together these disparate forces....

‘Dellinger had one truly important role in his life – that of holding together the Vietnam anti-war movement. This doesn’t discount his work against Jim Crow while in prison, his work on Liberation magazine, nor his efforts after the end of the Vietnam war, but he was never the leader of a group, nor the intellectual force for a movement.’

The influential magazine of radical nonviolence, Liberation was launched in 1956, following Direct Action (co-founded with AJ Muste and Dorothy Day) and other small magazines co-edited and printed by Dellinger.

Longtime US activist Ted Glick wrote in the PN obituary for Dellinger in 2004 (‘Farewell nonviolent warrior’, PN 2456): ‘Dave understood that social change doesn’t come just through grand historic actions or stirring speeches before thousands of cheering supporters. It comes even more through the daily sacrifices necessary to keep organisations together or to make an action come off well.

‘Dave had no problem doing whatever small or difficult task was necessary to move forward a project he considered important. If phone calls had to be made he would make them. If a letter had to be written he would be willing to write it. I remember his once driving something like 20 hours alone through a raging snowstorm to get to a meeting of a small group of people to make plans for actions to free [Native American political prisoner Leonard] Peltier and to honour indigenous people in the Americas.’

Dellinger married Elizabeth Peterson on 4 February 1942, not long after meeting her. They had two daughters and three sons.