David Dellinger

by Nancy Bertrand

Famous American Pacifist

On August 18, 1968, 15,000 peace demonstrators took their positions outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. After days of protests, demonstrations and marches against the Vietnam War, violence broke out when police advanced into the crowd using tear gas and verbal and physical violence in what was later described as “police riot.” One of their number, a lifelong pacifist and conscientious objector counseled everyone to stay seated. “Leave it to the Marshals to handle,” he said, “This is being done for the whole world to see. Let them see who is committing the violence.” In response, the demonstrators took up his words. “The whole world is watching,” they chanted, “The whole world is watching.”

Dellinger’s Life in Wakefield

An unlikely leader for this demonstration was from Wakefield. David Dellinger was born in 1915, grew up at 7 Shumway Circle in Wakefield, the son of parents who were backbones of the “establishment” in the Wakefield community.  His mother was a member of the Kosmos Club.  His grandmother on his mother’s side was a leader in the DAR. His father was a Boston lawyer, Chairman of the Town Republican Committee, a fundraiser for the First Parish Congregational Church, the YMCA and other ‘good causes,’ who also taught a popular Sunday School class for teenagers. One of Raymond Dellinger’s good friends was the governor of Massachusetts and later United States President, Calvin Coolidge. David recalled the Mr. Coolidge had been an occasional dinner guest in their home.

Dellinger’s childhood years in Wakefield held the roots for his profound pacifism. Andrew Hunt’s book David Dellinger: Life and Times of a Nonviolent Revolutionary relates that one of Dellinger’s earliest memories was the Armistice Day parade down Main Street at the conclusion of World War I and the wounded veterans who attended it.  His feelings of pacifism were reinforced as a young man when, with his father, he attended a Sweetser Lecture at Wakefield Town Hall.  The speaker, a German pilot named Count Felix Von Luckner, pleaded passionately and persuasively for an end to warfare.

Education

After attending the West Ward School and other local elementary schools, David Dellinger was an outstanding scholar and athlete at Wakefield High School; he was a long distance runner and tournament level golfer.   Graduating from Wakefield High School in 1932, he attended Yale University, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa economics major in 1936.  Awarded a scholarship for an additional year of study at Oxford, Dellinger traveled to Europe, where he visited Spain during its civil war.  His stay in Spain had a profound effect upon the young man, who was deeply moved by the spirit of brotherhood in the loyalist communist troops.  He spent his year at Oxford, but would later abandon his career in economics, instead beginning study at the Divinity School at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

The Turning Point

His studies would be cut short by the passage of the 1940 conscription law. As a divinity student, Dellinger was exempt from military service; all he had to do was register. But Dellinger saw the draft as a coercive militaristic intrusion into the lives of the country’s young males, and a calculated preparation for the United States’ entry into the war.  He refused to register and was imprisoned, along with seven other Union Seminary colleagues, in the Danbury federal prison.

Following his imprisonment, he married Elizabeth Peterson; the couple became employed in a community center in Newark, New Jersey, where they worked for “the elimination of poverty and injustice.” By 1943, he was involved in the People’s Peace Now Committee, which participated in public actions in Washington, D.C. and Newark, New Jersey. After these demonstrations, he was arrested again, this time for failure to take a physical for induction into the army. Sentenced to two years at the Lewisberg Maximum Security Penitentiary, he was not released until 1945.

 

After employment at a Quaker apple farm in Pennsylvania, he worked at a dairy farm in the Catskills in New York, where he launched a magazine called Direct Action.  This publication would be followed by Alternative, Individual and Liberation.

War Protests: Korea and Vietnam

Dellinger would protest against the Korean War, attempting to spread the word of peace by bicycling from Paris to Moscow, talking with people on both sides of the cold war. In the early 1960s he was involved in the civil rights struggle, becoming a close friend of the Reverend Martin Luther King, and participating in the freedom marches.

It was the Vietnam War that would most prominently launch David Dellinger into the public eye. He began speaking out against the war in 1963, and eventually became one of the leaders of the Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.  He came to the spotlight of the national media during the trial of the ‘Chicago Seven,’ when he, along with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner were arrested on charges of conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting a riot.  It was David Dellinger who led the courtroom protests against federal Judge Julius J. Hoffman.  His conviction in the trial was later overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

After the Vietnam War protests, David Dellinger lived in Vermont, where he taught at a local college.  In his autobiography From Yale to Jail, Dellinger credits the formulation of his ideas and ideals from his Christian upbringing, his loving relationship with his family and his father’s examples of loyalty to high moral principals.

He once said, “If you tell me that what I propose will take a thousand years to accomplish, that’s all the more reason for starting this afternoon.”  David Dellinger died in Montpelier, Vermont in 2004.

On a Personal Note

My family lives in the house that David Dellinger grew up in. It was nearly consumed by fire in 2006 but the front façade was preserved nearly intact while we rebuilt the house behind it so that the front of the house looks almost as it did when David Dellinger grew up there.

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