For many freshman Representatives, finding a way to stand out in the large and crowded House of Representatives poses a major challenge. Ron Dellums of California had no such problem. Elected to the House in 1970, at the age of 34, Dellums drew upon his national reputation as an outspoken anti-war and anti-establishment activist to challenge the institution and to secure a spot on the unlikeliest of panels: the House Armed Services Committee.
After joining the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), Dellums—who represented the Northern California district that founded the Free Speech Movement and the Black Panthers in the 1960s—lived up to his radical reputation. Over time, though, Dellums changed tactics. Fearful that he would alienate his House colleagues and hinder his ability to represent his constituents, the California Representative became more nuanced and patient, seeking change within the institution. “So why’d they send me all the way to Washington,” Dellums later conjectured. “Was it to keep carrying the sign or was it to put the sign down? Walk inside the building, take my seat at the table, and say, ‘I’m here to join you in governing, and in representing the half million people that sent me here.’ So I decided to opt for the latter.”
During his second term, Dellums, the self-proclaimed “peacenik,” made the unorthodox decision to seek a seat on the House Armed Services Committee. To Dellums it made perfect sense: Armed Services would provide the ideal spot to shape legislation involving the military, and to offer alternatives to armed conflict. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) backed his decision, but Armed Services Chairman F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana lobbied against the man he described as a “radical from Berkeley.” Predictably, his request was denied.
Dellums sought the advice of an influential California House colleague, Phil Burton. Burton told Dellums to demand a meeting with Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma. He also suggested that CBC chairman Louis Stokes of Ohio and Bill Clay of Missouri accompany Dellums and employ a “good cop, bad cop” routine, emphasizing both Dellums’s credentials and the racist overtones of denying him a place on the committee. The plan worked. With the backing of the Speaker, Dellums became the first African American to serve on Armed Services.
Watch Dellums discuss his appointment to the Armed Services Committee:
Stung by the Speaker’s intervention and also smarting from having another outspoken war critic on his panel, Pat Schroeder of Colorado, Hébert struck back. For the organizational meeting of the committee in 1973, he left only one chair for Dellums and Schroeder; the two made a pact to share the seat as a silent protest in response to the calculated slight. Dellums and Schroeder persevered, serving on the committee for their entire careers—in contrast to Hébert who lost his chairmanship in 1975, during the height of the congressional reforms weakening the power of committee chairs. Dellums later made history again when he became the first African-American chairman of the Armed Services Committee during the 103rd Congress (1993–1995).
Watch Dellums discuss sharing a chair with Pat Schroeder:
Ultimately, Dellums’s service on the Armed Services Committee represented more than an individual victory for the California Representative. In a direct conflict with a powerful chairman, Dellums and the CBC convinced House Leadership of the merits of the appointment and came out on top. The episode strengthened the CBC and made it difficult for individual chairmen to discount black Members of Congress.
Sources: Dellums, Ronald V., and H. Lee Halterman, Lying Down with the Lions: A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); “The Honorable Ronald V. Dellums Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [April 19, 2012].