David Dellinger

From New World Encyclopedia

David Dellinger (August 22, 1915 – May 25, 2004) was a renowned pacifist and activist for nonviolent social change, and one of the most influential American radicals in the twentieth century. He was most famous for being one of the Chicago Seven, a group of protesters whose disruption of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago led to charges of "conspiracy" and "crossing state lines with the intention of inciting a riot." The ensuing court case ultimately became a nationally-publicized platform for putting the Vietnam War on trial. On February 18, 1970, they were found guilty of conspiring to incite riots, but the charges were eventually dismissed by an appeals court due to errors by U.S. District Judge Julius Hoffman.

Dellinger was a mentor to many, and those who worked with him most commonly describe him as "courageous, warm, and committed." He was known as a happy man whom friends often described as a "cheery elf," rather than the common image of the austere, serious pacifist. He was a genuinely friendly person of boundless energy.

Dellinger was well known for his ability to bring people together, to find the common ground, to keep everyone focused on the goal. His activism was a model for a whole generation.

Dellinger had contacts and friendships with such diverse individuals as Eleanor Roosevelt, Ho Chi Minh, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abbie Hoffman, A.J. Muste of the worldwide Fellowship of Reconciliation, David McReynolds of the War Resisters League, and numerous Black Panthers, including Fred Hampton, whom he greatly admired. As chairman of the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee, he worked with many different anti-war organizations, but his work was not limited to that effort; he campaigned for prisoners' rights and a living wage, supported the American Indian Movement, demonstrated and wrote of his concerns regarding U.S. foreign policy.

Love for every human being is necessary for our individual growth and fulfillment. Those who practice this love benefit spiritually as they help others. While there are still badly needed changes in our anti-democratic society, I see positive signs that acting with love for other people and their needs does succeed.[1]

Early life and education

David Dellinger was born August 22, 1915, in Wakefield, Massachusetts, to a well-to-do family. His father was a lawyer who had graduated from Yale Law School. He was also a prominent member of the Republican Party.

In high school, Dellinger was an outstanding athlete, long distance runner, and tournament-level golfer. A superb student, he graduated from Yale University as a Phi Beta Kappa economics major in 1936, and won a scholarship for a year of study at Oxford University in England. He returned to Yale for graduate study and to the Union Theological Seminary in New York, to study for Congregationalist ministry.

Influenced as a youth by Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dorothy Day's Depression-era Catholic Worker movement, Dellinger worked behind the lines in the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, he refused to register for the draft before America's entry into World War II. As a result, he became one of a handful of radical pacifist prisoners whose Gandhian fasts helped integrate the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1942. Dellinger's colleagues, such as Ralph DiGia and brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and others would also go on to years of peace activism.[2]


David Dellinger is most identified with the era of the 1960s peace movements in America. However, he had been to court, to jail, and to prison long before that time. He supported union organizing drives in the 1930s and civil rights in the 1950s. He had written that he lost track of the times and places he was jailed. "I went from Yale to jail," he said, "and got a good education in both places."[3]

World War II

In preparation for World War II, the U.S. government, in 1940, instituted the military draft. David Dellinger became one of its first conscientious objectors, refusing to register for the draft. In reality, he could have had a deferment due to his studies for the divinity at Union Theological Seminary, but he took this stand to make a point.

War, he said, was "evil and useless." His alternative to war was brotherhood and the abolishment of capitalism. He offered the courts his critique of the "strategic disagreement" between the U.S. "imperialists" and the Third Reich.

Dellinger was sent to federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut for a year and a day. Upon his release, he still refused to register, and was sent to the maximum-security prison at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he staged hunger strikes and spent time in solitary confinement. Two years later, he was released.

Upon leaving prison, he married Elizabeth Peterson and embarked upon a career as a printer, a writer, a peace organizer, and, most pointedly, a radical pacifist.

Spokesperson for the radical left

After the war, Dellinger joined with Abraham Muste and Dorothy Day to establish the Direct Action magazine in 1945. Dellinger once again upset the political establishment when he criticized the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[4]

Dellinger continued to protest; against nuclear testing, against the bomb, against the Korean War, for prisoners' rights and for Puerto Rican independence. A critic called him "the Kilroy of radical politics," who appeared at every major demonstration. In the early 1960s, Dellinger made two journeys to Cuba, reporting enthusiastically on what the Castro revolution had done for the Cuban people.

In 1956, Dellinger, A. J. Muste, and Sidney Lens became the editors of Liberation, a radical pacifist monthly magazine. With a handful of other pacifists, such as Bayard Rustin and David McReynolds, they became a key bridge between the nonviolent civil rights movement led by Dr. King and early protests of the Vietnam War.[5]

By the mid-60s, Dellinger had become known as one of the main spokespersons for the radical American left, as young Americans began to protest the nation's treatment of African-Americans and the U.S. military incursion into Southeast Asia.


Dellinger was key to the resistance of the Vietnam War from the beginning, as both an organizer and a protester. He was able, as virtually no one else in the peace movement was, to bridge the gaps between all the various groups protesting the war.

In April 1963, Dellinger participated in a "peace walk" in New York City, during which those who favored peace clashed with other marchers over the Vietnam War. Dellinger's role moved him to the forefront of anti-Vietnam politics. He worked in 1964, with Muste and Daniel and Philip Berrigan to write a "Declaration of Conscience" to encourage resistance to the military draft.

A year later, in August 1965, with Yale professor Staughton Lynd and Student Nonviolent Organizing Committee organizer Bob Parris, Dellinger was arrested in front of the U.S. Capitol leading a march for peace and was jailed for 45 days. Two months later, Dellinger became one of the organizers of the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam. It was this organization that staged the huge anti-war marches in Washington D.C. in 1970.[6]

In October of 1967, Dellinger helped organize the famous march on the Pentagon, which would later be memorialized by author Norman Mailer in his prize-winning book, Armies of the Night. This was not his only Pentagon protest.

He made two trips to China and North Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. In 1969, North Vietnam decided to release a few U.S. prisoners of war, and its leaders requested Dellinger, among others, to travel to Hanoi to escort them back to the U.S. He and three others, including Rennie Davis, his co-defendant in the aftermath of the Chicago riots, flew to Hanoi in August and escorted the Americans back to freedom.[7]

A.J. Muste had played a crucial role in uniting the variety of groups protesting the Vietnam War. When he died in 1967, it was up to Dellinger to inherit this important and difficult task. He successfully held together a range of people; from the Communist Party to Rennie Davis and the rest of the Chicago Eight. Dellinger, along with Sid Peck and Norma Becker, was crucial to the anti-war movement; organizing, arranging financing, and creating a balance between the differing groups. It is said that without these three figures the movement could not have survived.[8]

America Indian Movement

Dellinger maintained a long-standing commitment to work with the imprisoned population, especially with the more than 100 U.S. political prisoners. A supporter of the American Indian Movement, and of the freedom campaigns for imprisoned AIM leader Leonard Peltier, Dellinger performed a number of lengthy fasts for Native American rights and for Peltier’s release. Peltier, incarcerated since the 1970s, said of Dellinger, "I don’t think that there will ever be another person like him" and upon learning of his death in 2004, he called it a "great loss to the movement as a whole and to political prisoners in particular."[9]

The Chicago Seven

Mr. Dellinger, who had been protesting since the 1930s, was the oldest of the seven (originally eight) Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot after a massive demonstration in the streets and parks of Chicago turned violent. Among the bearded, beaded, and wild-haired defendants, he was balding and wore a coat and tie.[10]

The Chicago Seven were seven (originally eight, at which point they were known as the Chicago Eight) defendants charged related to violent protests that took place in Chicago, Illinois, on the occasion of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The convention, in late August, 1968, was the scene of massive demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War, which was in full swing. Thousands of people showed up with signs and banners, tie-dyed shirts, music, dancing, and poetry. At first it was a carnival atmosphere, but the police were edgy. Some people responded to a night-time curfew announcement with rock-throwing. Police used tear gas and struck people with batons. People were arrested. In the aftermath, a grand jury indicted eight demonstrators and eight police officers.

The original eight defendants, indicted by the grand jury on March 20, 1969, were: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. The defense attorneys were William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass of the Center for Constitutional Rights. The judge was Julius Hoffman. The prosecutors were Richard Schultz and Tom Foran. The trial began on September 24, 1969, and on October 9, the United States National Guard was called in for crowd control as demonstrations grew outside the courtroom.

Ultimately, Judge Hoffman severed Black Panther Party activist Bobby Seale from the case and sentenced him to four years in prison for contempt. The Chicago Eight then became the Chicago Seven, where the defendants, particularly Hoffman and Rubin, mocked courtroom decorum as the widely publicized trial itself became a focal point for a growing legion of protesters.

The trial extended for months, with many celebrated figures from the American left and counterculture called to testify, including folk singers Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, and Arlo Guthrie, writer Norman Mailer, LSD advocate Timothy Leary, and Reverend Jesse Jackson.

The convictions were all reversed on appeal by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on November 21, 1972. The reasons for the reversal involved bias by the judge and his refusal to permit defense attorneys to question prospective jurors regarding cultural bias. The Justice Department decided not to re-try the case.

During the trial, all the defendants and both defense attorneys had been cited for contempt and sentenced to jail, but those convictions were also overturned. The contempt charges were re-tried before a different judge, who originally found Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis guilty of inciting a riot, but the convictions were overturned on appeal.

Final years

In the 1980s, Dellinger moved to Peacham, Vermont, to teach at Vermont College and to write his memoirs, in which he referred to himself as a "failed poet, a flawed feminist, and a convinced pantheist."

In addition to continuing his active protesting and frequent public speaking, Dellinger found time to finish his memoirs and From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of A Moral Dissenter was published in 1993.

In 1996, Dellinger and other activists who demonstrated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention had an opportunity to publicly reflect on the event. The 1996, Democratic National Convention was again held in Chicago. Approximately 500 demonstrators representing a variety of causes appeared, Dellinger among them. He remarked to a reporter, "The numbers of people who came and the energy they had made it very successful. We made it clear there would be no violence."[11]

Mr. Dellinger remained actively engaged in issues until just a few years before his death. The "last real trip he made," his daughter said, was three years before, in 2001, when Dellinger led a group of young activists from Montpelier, Vermont, to Quebec City, to protest the creation of a free trade zone in the Western Hemisphere.

"He felt this is one of the most important times to be active," she said. "He was working on a wide range of things: Prisoners' rights, supporting a living wage, demonstrating and writing about foreign policy of this government."

Dellinger died of pneumonia May 25, 2004, at the Montpelier, Vt., retirement home where he lived. He was also suffering from Alzheimer's disease.


  1. David Budbill, A Good and Useful Life. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  2. Geov Parrish, David Dellinger.
  3. Patricia Sullivan, Lifelong Protester David Dellinger Dies. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  4. Spartacus Educational, David Dellinger. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  5. Geov Parrish, David Dellinger. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  6. Book Rags, Encyclopedia of World Biography on David Dellinger. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  7. Patricia Sullivan, Lifelong Protester David Dellinger Dies. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  8. Matt Meyer and Judith Mahoney Pasternak, David Dellinger 1915-2004. Retrieved February 24, 2005.
  9. Matt Meyer and Judith Mahoney Pasternak, David Dellinger 1915-2004. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  10. Book Rags, Encyclopedia of World Biography on David Dellinger. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  11. Book Rags, Encyclopedia of World Biography on David Dellinger. Retrieved February 24, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dellinger, David. From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. ISBN 0679405917
  • Dellinger, David. Revolutionary Nonviolence Essay. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.
  • Dellinger, David. Vietnam Revisited: Covert Action to Invasion to Reconstruction. Massachusetts: South End Press, 1986. ISBN 0896083209
  • Gara, Larry and Lenna Mae Gara. A Few Small Candles: War Resistors of World War II Tell Their Stories. Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999. ISBN 0873386213
  • Hunt, Andrew E. David Dellinger: The Life and Times of a Nonviolent Revolutionary. New York: New York University Press, 2006. ISBN 0814736386

External links

All links retrieved June 25, 2022.


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