The narrative of Mervyn Malcolm Dymally’s journey from rural Trinidad to the United States political arena is a unique coming-of-age story set to be chronicled in an upcoming autobiography.
Dymally’s formal exposure to local and global affairs came at 17, when he became a journalist with the Vanguard, a Trinidadian publication that started as the official newspaper for the National Oilfield Workers Trade Union. His appetite whetted, Dymally set out for the United States in 1946. His pursuit of an education led him to such varied locales as Anderson, Ind., Jefferson City, Mo., and Dayton, Ohio, as well as an extended stay in New York, where he took in that city’s cultural amusements by becoming a regular attendee at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
His wanderings across the continental U.S. terminated in Southern California, where he continued his education, first at Chapman University, then at Los Angeles City College.
Coming from the east, the climate in his new digs was, in his word, “paradise.” Within this balmy oasis however, existed a political environment every bit as temperamental and aggravating as the harsh winters he’d left behind.
In addition to its moderate temperature and academic opportunities, the Southland offered other agreeable attractions. Dymally rented living quarters from iconic pianist and singer Charles Brown of “Merry Christmas, Baby” fame, and began to acquaint himself with his adopted hometown. The Caribbean expatriate’s entry into the fellowship of Kappa Alpha Psi afforded him social interactions with such notable fraternity members as Tom Bradley, and others who would stand out on the California horizon.
Turmoil in paradise
Balmy climate notwithstanding, the City of Angels had its share of turmoil on the streets and in the back rooms of its powerbrokers. Nationally, the 1950s were a significant period for all people of color. Dymally was especially motivated by the example set by activists in and around Greensboro, N.C., and, buoyed by the mentoring of future political consultant Joe Cerrell, he became active with the Young Democrats and the subsequent presidential campaign of John Kennedy in 1960.
In the course of his duties, Dymally made the acquaintance of California’s two principal Democratic players: Alan Cranston, scion of a prominent Northern California family and future U.S. senator, and the larger-than-life political powerbroker Jess “Big Daddy” Unruh. One other figure made an impact on the budding politician–the pioneering legislator and mentor to generations of aspiring lawmakers, Augustus F. Hawkins.
Hawkins’ style, in Dymally’s words was “absolutely cool, nothing fazed him.” A chance encounter at a Fresno conference in 1961 led the upstart to give the elder statesman a ride back to Los Angeles, and during the course of the trip south, the decision was made for the younger man to run for Hawkins’ vacated state Assembly seat. (Hawkins was about to run for and win a seat in Congress.)
En route to his own victory in the Assembly, circa 1962, Dymally made another fateful contact when, while strolling the streets with Gov. Pat Brown, he came upon, in the parlance of his native Trinidad, a “swagger boy.”
“Young man, I want you to meet the governor. Are you registered to vote?” Dymally asked Ken Orduna, the man who would become his trusted adviser and chief assistant.
“He (Orduna) mumbled something,” Dymally continued, “and took off to the nearest fire station” to register.
Over the next decades, Orduna himself was a focal point in California government as the indispensable campaign coordinator for local candidates, including Tom Bradley on his historical quest and victory in the Los Angeles mayoral race.
Dymally and Orduna were especially motivated by civil rights icon Bayard Rustin’s 1964 essay “From Protest to Politics,” in which he advocated an alliance between the Democratic Party and the Civil Rights Movement. After serving in the Assembly, Dymally ran and won a seat as state senator in 1967.
Rustin again prompted Dymally into action a few years later when Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver made his 1975 return to the United States after several years of exile in Europe and North Africa. During his years as an international fugitive, the former bicycle thief, marijuana dealer, and rapist also had fallen out of favor with Black Panther Party co-founders Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and the rest of the party hierarchy, the result being that an assassination plot was hatched against the newly returned exile, to be carried out when Cleaver was taken into custody at the Alameda County jail.
This tidbit had been passed along by Rustin to Dymally, who by now was California’s lieutenant governor. Radical politics or not, Dymally reasoned that Cleaver was still a member of his constituency, and thus deserving of protection. He, in turn, passed this information on to the California Department of Justice, and Cleaver was secured in the (relative) safety of the state prison system.
In later years, Cleaver went through incarnations as a born-again Christian, a baptized member of the Mormon faith, an exponent of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church, and finally a conservative Republican and a major critic of his former benefactor, Merv Dymally.
Dymally was the only elected official to mentor and support groups like CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Black Student Movement, as well as the Black Congress and its financial arm, the Brotherhood Crusade.
Dymally’s position and experience were essential in teaching these groups to maneuver and utilize the system in the pursuit of their goals and advancing their cause.
Dymally’s progressive stance earned him the antagonism of many of his colleagues across the conservative political spectrum. He became a principal target of the FBI’s “Operation Fruehmenschen” (German for “primitive man”), a program designed to discredit Black elected officials on the grounds they were mentally and socially inappropriate to head governmental agencies.
This witch hunt included scrutiny by the Justice Department and the IRS, which audited his tax returns back to 1947, finding only that the government owed him a grand total of 89 cents.
Even so, he worked tirelessly behind the scenes to neutralize the volatile relations between Blacks and local, state, and federal entities as well as law enforcement. Others who toiled to prevent bloodshed were LAPD officers Duwayne Rice, Edward Henry, and former chief and present councilman Bernard Parks. Their efforts are a part of a forgotten segment of Los Angeles history that has yet to be told.
In one memorable episode, the LAPD staged a raid on the local Black Panther headquarters at 41st Street and Central Avenue on Dec. 9, 1969, just a few days after a similar early morning raid at the party’s Chicago office resulted in the death of leader Fred Hampton.
Months earlier, on Jan. 17, a shootout between Panthers and members of the US Black nationalist organization on UCLA’s campus resulted in the deaths of two Black Panthers, and racial tensions remained high throughout the city.
After the raid, begun at 5:30 a.m., morphed into a firefight between the Panthers and the police’s newly conceived Special Weapons And Tactics team (SWAT), Dymally went to the site of the shootout with a contingent of supporters in hopes of de-escalating the violence. His presence as an elected state senator almost certainly prevented the loss of life in a gunfight that saw some 5,000 rounds expelled.
In the aftermath of the conflict in which each side suffered gunshot wounds to three of its members, both radical left and law enforcement consider it a seminal moment. As the first deployment of SWAT, police strategists used it as a template to refine their techniques for future tactical missions.
The Black Panthers surrendered after a five-hour siege, and later were acquitted in a lengthy trial aided by a legal defense that included the then-unheralded Johnnie Cochran.
The international deal maker
During the course of his civil service, Dymally crossed paths with an assortment of famous and infamous notables, including the Rev. Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples’ Temple and instigator of one of the largest mass murders in history at a church compound in Guyana, South America.
At various times in his career, he rubbed elbows with the likes of Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi and Egyptian President Abdel Nasser.
In 1991, a triumvirate, including attorney Asantewa Olatunji, actor Danny Glover, and activist Ayuko Babu, made a cultural pilgrimage to the landlocked African country of Burkina Faso.
The prestige of Dymally, then a U.S. congressman and chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, gained Glover and Babu entry into the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou or FESPACO) and gave their excursion legitimacy and cachet on the international stage, enabling them to launch their own Pan African Film Festival based in Los Angeles.
Dymally went to Cuba with the Rev. Jesse Jackson to secure the release of 23 American citizens who had been detained on drug charges in 1984. In 1985, he was on his way to his native Trinidad when he was sidetracked by a staff member to intervene on the behalf of two constituents anxious to gain reunification with relatives in Cuba.
During the course of these arrangements, Fidel Castro agreed to be interviewed for Playboy magazine by Dymally and Jeffery Elliott, chair of the political science department at North Carolina Central University.
Recalling this series of events, Dymally said “. . . we did two books out of that. Playboy contacted Jeffery, he told me about it, and I contacted Fidel, who said that August was his best month for free time.”
Like many media-savvy individuals, Castro had the predilection of taking over an interview and bending the subject toward his own agenda.
“It got lighter (as the interview went on), but it was tense at first,” Dymally recalls.
“He wanted to do it–he just wanted to make sure we were gonna ask the questions that he wanted, and he wanted to say what he wanted, and wanted to conduct it all in Spanish (facilitated by an interpeter). He didn’t speak a word of English during four hours of intense interviews, from about midnight to 4 a.m.”
“He was very impressive, knowledgeable. Knowing more history than a professor at Howard (University),” Dymally remembered.
Consequently, when questioned about the deployment of Cuban troops to the southern African nation of Angola in 1975, el Comandante “took us back through the whole history of Angola,” Dymally said.
In one of the lesser-known episodes of the Cold War, the communist bloc and the western world engaged in a “proxy war” in which the principal adversaries (in this case, the Soviet Union and the United States) would use smaller (substitute) countries to engage in armed conflict without escalating to full-scale (nuclear) warfare.
In the aftermath of Angola’s newly won independence from Portugal, apartheid South African forces (buttressed by U.S. support) moved into the country to confront guerrilla forces linked to the Soviet communists (both motivated by Angola’s vast mineral and petroleum reserves).
Cuba (underwritten by their Russian patrons) countered by deploying troops that eventually numbered some 50,000 to begin an intervention that lasted for 15 years. Although their push to install a Marxist-Leninist regime failed, the relationship continues to shape the economic and political destinies of both countries.
Closer to home, Dymally’s dealings within the state and his congressional district were at least as convoluted and tumultuous as his forays out of the country. Aside from his part in the safe return of Eldridge Cleaver, he was active in prison reform, a natural outgrowth of his commitment to progressive politics, a pledge that was tested by the deaths of liberal activists Fay Stender and Arlene Slaughter.
Stender, was a Bay Area attorney who was notable for engineering the overturn of Black Panther Huey Newton’s manslaughter conviction in the death of an Oakland policeman, and was instrumental in making Black Guerrilla Family founder George Jackson into a best-selling author and international media celebrity.
She, in turn, was gunned down and permanently crippled in 1979 by one of Jackson’s followers, who alleged that she had “betrayed him.” Stender, in constant pain from her wounds, committed suicide shortly afterwards.
Slaughter was a real estate broker and early proponent in the fight against “red-lining,” a practice of inhibiting home loans for minorities and other “undesirables” in selected neighborhoods. She was killed in her Regent Street home in north Oakland, circa 1984 under mysterious circumstances, possibly related to her political activism.
The two tragedies caused Dymally to withdraw from the cause of prison reform and devotion to such a volatile constituency.
Dirty tricks and the ‘October Surprise’
With his retirement and a chance to start his memoirs, Dymally came across paperwork concerning an alleged plot to fix the 1980 presidential election by principals within the Ronald Reagan campaign, especially its campaign manager, William J. Casey, in an episode that came to be known as the “October Surprise.”
In the months leading up to the election, incumbent Jimmy Carter was stymied by his inability to secure the release of 52 American hostages captured at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, by Islamic militants as part of the overthrow of that country’s government in November 1979.
Members of the U.S. Republican Party hierarchy became concerned that a successful release of the captives could generate a surge in popularity for Carter (hence the term, “October Surprise”), and in turn secure his re-election on Nov. 4, 1980.
It was alleged that the Republicans conspired with the Iranians to delay the hostages’ release until after the election. (They were released on Jan. 20, 1981, 20 minutes after Reagan’s inaugural address). In return for this cooperation, the Iranians received weaponry and the release of monetary assets in American banks (possibly leading up to the Iran-Contra intrigue a few years later), and William Casey became CIA director.
Carter, an Annapolis graduate and a naval officer who helped launch the Navy’s fledgling nuclear submarine program, was perceived as “weak.” Reagan, whose military credentials were limited to acting as a public relations officer charged with the production of training films for the Army Air Force, established himself as a hard-line gunslinger, able to face down America’s enemies in a global showdown.
Rumors about this collusion eventually prompted a congressional investigation 12 years after the fact, and in turn spurred efforts by the conservative faction to exonerate the Reagan administration and inhibit the investigation.
Dymally, then a member of the bipartisan House task force charged with looking into this possible chicanery, took issue with some of the flimsy alibis concocted by Reagan loyalists, to the point where he wrote an official dissent expressing his concerns.
Task force chairman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) countered by warning Dymally to withdraw his dissent or face dire consequences. When Dymally hesitated, Hamilton fired all the staff members on an African subcommittee previously chaired by Dymally.
Dymally capitulated in an attempt to spare his former employees the pain of sudden joblessness, and in spite of an official verdict exonerating the principals, evidence still pointed to skullduggery on the part of Casey in the form of secretly traveling to meet with Iranian clerics and others connected to that country’s radical cabal.
As the administration of incoming President Bill Clinton geared up, Republicans and Democrats weren’t anxious to look into the malfeasance of an event a dozen years prior, even if it was a central factor in the loss of a presidential election.
Hamilton, noted for his bipartisanship, later became a principal figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, and was instrumental in granting immunity to central participant Oliver L. North in the aftermath of North’s indictment on 16 charges.
These manipulations and intrigues are just a few of the triumphs and disappointments encountered by the now 86-year-old Mervyn M. Dymally in his own personal American odyssey. The personal and political campaigns he fought and the people he met along the way are chronicled in the upcoming book titled “From Island Immigrant to United States Congress,” due out in October.