Former U.S. Congressman Mervyn Dymally: An unapologetic political trailblazer
Conversation at CAAM
Former U.S. Congressman Mervyn Dymally gave an intimate crowd a rare look into a living historical prism during an unscripted, spontaneous Q&A session at the California African America Museum.
He offered candid insights into his diverse professional background while graciously providing unedited non-apologetic opinions about his peers, politics, and the erosion of civil rights.
Dymally’s political career began 48 years ago when he became the first African-American to serve in the State Senate. In 1974, he achieved another first by winning the lieutenant governor’s race. Another political achievement included casting the tie-breaking vote for Assembly Bill 489, one of the nation’s first gay rights bills in 1975.
He was decisively elected to California’s 31st Congressional District in 1980 and became the first foreign-born Black American to serve in Congress.
“I was once told that Black people would never vote for a person with a foreign accent,” said Dymally. “It never became an issue.”
Although Dymally earned the reputation as one of the foremost experts on international policy, his critics complained that he spent too much time on international issues. Nevertheless, he served five terms in Congress.
Dymally has some harsh criticisms of his former colleagues.
“Most members of Congress are influenced by op-ed pieces, pundits, and ideology,” said Dymally. “Many feel it not appropriate to speak to those who disagree with them. My position was just the opposite. Therefore, I traveled all over the world, 187 countries, talking to democrats, autocrats, socialists, fascists, to educate myself about them. It was a part of my intellectual curiosity.”
While in Congress Dymally served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chaired a subcommittee on international operations. He also headed the Congressional Black Caucus from 1987 to 1989. The late Congressman Julian Dixon and Victor Frazier, a delegate from the Virgin Islands were once Dymally staff members..
Anthony Portantino, who represents the California 44th Assembly District, believes Dymally is one of those “rare people who deserves respect for everything he’s gone through.” Portantino adds, “Dymally is a fascinating man.”
The silence was a bit unnerving during Dymally’s methodical explanation of the nation’s current political situation. He spoke frankly about the downside of term limits and its negative effects upon this state’s government. Because of term limits today’s politician is looking for the next office and not the next piece of legislation, he added.
“So their focus is on raising money. Today there is no sense of accountability. When I served, it was easier to get civil rights legislation passed. That’s not so today because politics are too partisan.”
The audience gasped as he demonstrated frustration with a local politician who would not return phone calls. “I spent a week trying reach my legislator and it took a week before he returned my phone call.”
Among the controversies during his lengthy political career was Dymally’s association with controversial leaders such as Fidel Castro of Cuba, the late Mobutu Sese Seko, president of Zaire, and the late Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Though investigated, Dymally was never charged by the IRS, FBI or the Justice Department.
While admitting to not being a good student in school as a child, Dymally said he was encouraged by his parents. Dymally completed his Ph.D. in human behavior at the United States International University in San Diego in 1978. He is currently the director of the Urban Health Institute at Charles Drew University. The Urban Health Institute conducts advocacy policy and research to improve health inequities that plague poor and underserved communities in South Los Angeles.
Dymally was instrumental in the creation of the California African American Museum.
Charmaine Jefferson, executive director of the California African American Museum, says Mervyn Dymally “understood that we have contributed to the history of this country and world.” She adds that, “our art, our culture was not being collected. Therefore, we need to collect it, because if we didn’t who would do it? He represents a forward thinker. He also understood the importance of preserving the legacy of African American history.”
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The Urban Issues Breakfast Forum will host scholar-activist-author Angela Y. Davis April 19 from 7:30-9:30 a.m. (the program starts promptly at 8 a.m.) at the California African American Museum, 600 State Park Drive, Exposition Park in Los Angeles. Priority admission and seating will be given to those who purchase Dr. Davis’ latest book, “The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues.” The book must be purchased at Eso Won Bookstore, at which time purchaser’s will be given a priority admission coupon.
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