National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 18, 2004

Dellinger battled against institutions, not people


In 1945, David Dellinger, having just served two jail terms for his refusal to be drafted into World War II and furious over the atom bombing of Japan, declared war against the United States.

“The prejudices of patriotism, the pressures of our friends and the fear of unpopularity, imprisonment or death should not hold us back any longer,” he wrote, “It must be total war against the infamous economic, political and social system which has been destroying human life in peace and in war, at home and abroad, for decades.

“Henceforth,” he insisted, “no decent citizen owes one scrap of allegiance (if he ever did) to American law, American custom, or American institutions.”

It would be, he said, a war for “total brotherhood.”

And it would be a nonviolent war: “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.”

I met David a full half-century later. I was 19. I had heard him speak and wrote to request an interview.

Weeks passed with no response. Then, a letter: He was sorry he had not replied sooner. There had been a speaking tour. There had also been a protest and an arrest. He had spent a little time in jail. He was 79.

When we finally met, I asked him how many times he had been arrested. David wasn’t keeping track. It wasn’t a race, he told me.

David’s obituary made most major American newspapers -- NPR and CNN, too -- when he died May 25 at Heaton Woods assisted living community in Montpelier, Vt. He was 88.

But the man honored was a man frozen in time and place: Chicago, 1968. He was, of course, one of the eight -- and later, seven -- on trial for “conspiracy to incite riot” at the 1968 National Democratic Convention. A known pacifist, the allegations were a sort of cruel comedy.

It was during that trial that David became a bit of a celebrity. He was adored and despised. His son changed his last name to avoid the constant nagging: You aren’t related to David Dellinger, are you?

And so, not surprisingly, it was the celebrity who was eulogized in the mainstream press: “David Dellinger, One of the Chicago 7, Dies.”

There was little trace of the profoundly humble man who, in his 1993 autobiography From Yale to Jail struck out against hero worship.

“It’s not only words like ‘chick’ or ‘fag,’ ‘nigger’ or ‘Pollack’ that demean people by turning them into something less than themselves,” he wrote. “Good labels are bad for human beings, too. There is no way I can label you or you can label me without our missing each other.”

And so he struggled at every turn to shed the “good labels.” But the effort was futile, much as he would fight it. He was exceptional if only for his consistency.

“David represented the idea that nonviolence, not merely as a refusal to be violent but as a process, could bring about fundamental social change,” historian and activist Staughton Lynd, a longtime friend of David’s, told NCR, “and I don’t think he varied in that regard … [from] the late ’30s until the day of his death.

“I remember his saying to me 40 years ago that we had both lived beyond the average life expectancy of people in the world as a whole … so these were years that we didn’t have a right to expect. We ought to try to do something useful with them.”

At Yale in the mid-1930s, the son of an influential New England lawyer, David put on his oldest clothes, left the security of his college campus, and began a brief but deeply influential stint as a hobo. At Oxford later in the decade, he visited Germany and served as a courier between one anti-Nazi group and another.

Later, at Union Theological Seminary, he refused a clergy-to-be draft exemption and was thrown in jail. He was out in time to refuse to fight after the United States officially entered World War II. Jail again, where he engaged in dangerously long hunger strikes to protest prison segregation and mail censorship.

Later he would visit China, Cuba and North Vietnam (where he negotiated the release of American POWs). “He was not about to separate himself from revolutionary impulses, whether in Cuba or Vietnam, or on the streets of Chicago,” Lynd said. “That led many in the nonviolence movement to look askance at some of his political alliances.”

Just a few months before the United States invaded Iraq, I received a “Seasons Greetings” letter from David and his less public but equally inspiring wife, Elizabeth Peterson.

They were, they said, “comfortably and happily settled, each in our own room, at Heaton Woods.

“David exercises with 20 other residents here. We get three delicious, nutritious meals a day and there are games and many other activities each morning.”

It was sweet. It was also a little bit sad. Caged birds, I thought to myself. Then this: “We are still able to go to the local vigils and rallies for Peace and Justice. … We are also members of a newer group which is the Alliance for Prison Justice.”

The injustice of prisons, for David, was always a deeply personal issue. His writings from and about prison are his most powerful.

From Yale to Jail was the first book Kathy Kelly requested upon entering federal prison for a nonviolent protest at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas.

In a letter to Elizabeth Peterson, after David’s death, Kelly honored the simplicity with which David faced the most complex challenges. “I hope I remember him as long as I live,” she wrote, “and most especially at any times when I’m tempted to treat another person with indifference or contempt. Life holds such happiness when we release the enthusiasm and acceptance that David champions.”

His was an “extraordinarily graceful life,” she added, “and together you and he took our breath away in profoundest hopes for peace.”

Jeff Guntzel is a contributing writer who lives in Indianapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 2004

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