Remembering David Dellinger

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(Host) Commentator Jay Craven reflects on the life of a late friend and neighbor.

(Craven) David Dellinger’s recent death serves as a stunning testament to how much one passionate person can accomplish in a lifetime. Throughout his seventy years as an activist and writer, Dellinger displayed a fierce non-violent resistance to militarism and injustice.

Dave was a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, a luncheon guest in Calvin Coolidge’s White House, an ambulance driver during the Spanish Civil War, a trusted colleague to Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, and a mentor to progressive luminaries, from Allen Ginsberg to Tennesee Williams.

Nonetheless, Dave lived a modest life and always turned toward the grass roots for guidance, meaning, and sustenance.

During his twenty-five years in Vermont and well into his 80’s, Dave and his gracious wife, Elizabeth, could always be found speaking in local high schools, providing support to foster children and prisoner families, or standing at weekly peace vigils by the St. Johnsbury Post Office.

Dave was friendly to critics and critical to friends. Indeed, his final book, “Vietnam Revisited,” is dedicated to “all the veterans of the Vietnam War; those who fought in it and those who fought against it.”

South African writer Njabulo Ndebele spoke at my son’s recent Wesleyan University graduation. His words prompted me to think, quite vividly, of Dave.

Ndebele invited the young graduates to consider how his country avoided racial war while throwing off decades of oppression. He mused at how the contending races had resolved their deep conflict without declaring victors and losers.

“What most of us recognized, at the very last moment,” Ndebele said, “was just how much we needed each other. We realized that violent confrontation promised only destruction and a long life of shared misery. It was a choice we made. It was a choice against the habit to march into final battle.”

“The two camps recognized mutual vulnerability through exposing themselves to considerable risk,” he said. “In doing so, both sides resisted the attractive habit to be ‘tough.’ Being tough would have meant going to war, whatever the price. Each would have convinced themselves that truth was on their side. But thankfully, our leaders realized that being tough in this way had caused much misery. Caught in the clutches of danger, they discovered a new meaning of toughness, something much harder to do. They discovered that being tough was not so much about going to war, but in choosing to avoid it.”

Ndebele continued, “In doing so, South Africans gave up one-dimensional ways of thinking about one another. They became more tolerant, more accepting of personal or group faults. That has been the greatest revolution,” he said, “the transformation of deeply held personal and group beliefs.”

David Dellinger fought for this kind of revolution. In a world of nuclear arms, terrorism, and pre-emptive war, Dave’s views were considered radical. But they are views that, thanks to his tireless lifetime of work, will live beyond him.

Jay Craven is a filmmaker and teaches film studies at Marlboro College.

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