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Twice Assemblyman, Congressman, Lieutenant-governor, State Senator, school teacher, father, husband, mentor, goodwill ambassador, Mervyn M. Dymally is all of the above and much, much more.
When Mervyn M. Dymally left Trinidad, the land of his birth, seeking his fame and fortune, little did the world know what to expect from that young, 19 year-old Black man from the Caribbean. During the next six decades, Dymally did not disappoint his homeland nor his adopted homeland; he exceeded expectations and energized the political landscape in such a way that it would take decades to fully appreciate the impact of Dymally’s contributions to the advancement of politics, race, culture and education not only in the United States but also throughout many of the world’s developing nations.
To say that Dymally is a political phenomenon is an understatement. Known as the “dean of the California State Assembly,” he is scheduled to retire at the end of his term in the state assembly after blazing a political trail for members of both major political parties and beyond, not only in California but also in the nation’s capital, Africa and the Caribbean.
Starting his political journey as an Assemblyman, Dymally became the first Black State Senator in California followed by being the first and only Black lieutenant governor of California. (Dymally was also the first foreign-born governor of California since he often assumed the state’s top office whenever the Governor was out of state). After 11 years in Washington as a U. S. Congressman, he “claimed” to have retired only to return to the State Assembly where he chaired the Legislative Black Caucus and now it appears that after five decades in elected office, he will finally retire—but only from elected office—at the end of his present term. Dymally plans to stay active and occupied during his post-political years.
Dymally grew up in a small, religiously eclectic village and though his father was Muslim and his mother was Catholic, he ended up in the Anglican Church. He grew up in a racially integrated environment—not Black and White—a more cosmopolitan environmental mix of races, religions and ethnicities including East Indians, Middle-Easterners, Hindus, Muslims, Blacks, Chinese and Catholics. He had a normal boyhood country experience, which involved a British flavor since Trinidad was colonized by the British.
He left his homeland after finishing elementary school and secondary, and briefly working as a labor reporter for the Trinidad Oilfield Workers Trade Union publication intending to pursue a career in Journalism in the United States after being introduced to U.S. through some of its publications. After some difficulty in adjusting to the weather, Dymally eventually became acclimated to life in the U.S. amidst its race, economics and cultural dynamics. Though he was initially bound for Lincoln University School of Journalism in Jefferson City, Missouri, his energetic spirit yearned for adventure in his new homeland. He traveled to New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois before settling in California, where he began a teaching career. The lure of politics got to Dymally and he joined the Young Democrats around the time of the John F. Kennedy campaign in 1960. He began learning the rough-and tumble world of politics. The Democratic Party held their national convention in Los Angeles that year and Dymally aligned himself with some of the power players of the California Democratic establishment and eventually became the party’s state treasurer. According to Dymally, “There were two factions, the Jess Unruh faction and the Alan Cranston faction.”
After meeting with Augustus Hawkins, Dymally became interested in running for Hawkins’ assembly seat since Hawkins was about to run for Congress. Hawkins won and Dymally went after his assembly seat. During that time he met his future lifelong friend, chief assistant and confidant, Kenneth Orduna who wrote the introduction statement to Dymally’s assembly booklet, “A Legacy of Service.” Orduna wrote that his friendship with Dymally is likened to that of David and Jonathan in the Bible. He is the most powerful and dedicated public servant elected leader representing the African American community.
In 1962, Dymally was elected to the California State Assembly where he introduced the first legislation in the U. S. to call for the teaching of “negro” history in California schools.
Four years later, Dymally became the first Black member of the California Senate where he was elected Chairman of the Senate Majority Caucus and introduced legislation calling for equal property rights for women. He remained in the state legislature for 12 years, a period in which he sharpened and honed his skills as master politician. To him, politics was fast becoming the cutting edge of the Civil Rights Movement because it empowered legislators to solidify the inroads about which the marchers and protesters were rallying in the streets. Many times in his attempts to get his legislation passed, he would run into resistance but he kept coming back with a more powerful and creative approach.
Dymally not only saw the need, but he also took steps to fulfill them in and out of elective office. He saw the need to focus on education particularly in the Black community and directed his efforts and energy in that direction. His concerns were often reflected in the bills and the causes he supported, like when he was asked the future of education in California he stated, “The future of young Blacks is education. No country offers an opportunity for growth in education as the United States. The key to it all is education.”
When he became the lieutenant governor in 1974, there were also some ancillary benefits relative to education. In that position, he was not only the President of the State Senate but also a Regent of the University of California and a Trustee of the California State Universities and Colleges. As lieutenant governor, Dymally reportedly said, “I believe it is the responsibility of government to assist those citizens in need to become productive members of our society.” And the way that is done is through education; it is his personal ethic and it drives him to serve the people, his family and society in general.
He is married to Alice Gueno Dymally, a former schoolteacher and has two children, Mark and Lynn, and three randchildren, Miya, Christian and Cameron.
As an elected official in the public domain, Dymally had his share of racial and legal entanglements and though he grew up in a racially- tolerant environment, intolerance in any form bothered him tremendously. When Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title and was unable to fight, Dymally reportedly was instrumental in getting him licensed to fight in California. When he was lieutenant governor, there was speculation that he was going to be indicted since he had been the target of repeated, insidious investigations, but he always came out unscathed; never was he ever indicted or charged with a crime. His opposition was heavily financed and it eventually cost him his re-election bid for a second term as lieutenant governor in 1978, so he returned to civilian life.