He was a political icon and his passing has left a void in California and indeed national politics; he was involved in state and national politics for the past half a century
Mervyn Dymally’s favorite quote: “THIS ABOVE ALL: TO THINE OWNSELF BE TRUE, AND IT MUST FOLLOW, AS THE NIGHT THE DAY, THOU CANST NOT THEN BE FALSE TO ANY MAN.” – Shakespeare’s Hamlet
When Assemblyman Mervyn M. Dymally was last in the California State Assembly, he put out a booklet for his constituents titled, ‘A Legacy of Service.’ In it, he briefly outlined some of his accomplishments throughout his political career from his days as a special education teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District up to his return to the Assembly. In California, he was considered the ‘Dean of Black Politicians’ and for almost half a century, he impacted the political environment not only in California, Washington D.C., Africa and the Caribbean, but he also mentored a generation of elected officials.
COMING TO AMERICA
Dymally started life in Trinidad, West Indies and as he said, “My father would roll in his grave if he heard me say that we were poor; not in the sense of food or housing, we were cash poor.” His father was Muslim and his mother was Catholic, but he ended up in the Episcopalian Anglican Church. According to Dymally, he had “a typical boyhood country experience playing soccer and cricket, eating mangoes and sugarcane. Our basic meal was fish and rice.”
After finishing elementary and secondary schooling in Trinidad, he went to work as a reporter for the Trade Union publication, “the Vanguard.” While working there, he was introduced to U. S. newspapers: the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. That sparked his interest in the United States. He applied to a number of Journalism schools in the U.S. and was accepted at Lincoln University School of Journalism, Jefferson City, Missouri. At 19, he came to the U. S. and since he did not receive proper counseling before making the transition, Dymally had difficulty in adjusting to life in the U. S.: the dynamics of race, economics, and the (cold) weather. He moved around a bit, went to New York, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois before coming to Los Angeles, California to attend Chapman College. He eventually ended up at Los Angeles State College (now California State University. L.A.).
ENTERING THE POLITICAL ARENA
He began as a substitute teacher, then took the teachers’ examination and passed, but had to hold down two jobs “to make ends meet.” Eventually he joined the Young Democrats. Dymally stated that at one of the elections for officers for the state convention, all the officers were listed except treasurer, and he ended up as state treasurer. In 1960, he became actively involved in the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and later on, in the Kennedy presidential campaign.
Dymally met Augustus “Gus” Hawkins, who eventually won a congressional seat and got him interested in running for his (Hawkins’) assembly seat. Some people told him that “Black people are not going to elect a guy with an accent named Mervyn.” During that time, he met Kenneth “Ken” Orduna , who would become his lifelong confidante and trusted advisor. About Dymally, Orduna wrote in ‘A Legacy of Service’ : “I have been privileged to be by his side as an eyewitness and as a worker with him as he matured to become the most effective, sensitive, and humble world-renowned political leader and Statesman…’
In 1962, he got 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. When 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.”
Four years later, Dymally was elected as the first Black member of the California Senate where he introduced legislation calling for equal property rights for women. In his 12 years in the State Assembly and the Senate, he got “knocked down” many times in his attempts to get his legislation passed, but he kept coming back with more powerful and creative approaches.
As Lieutenant Governor and U.S. Congressman
His next political step was in 1974; Dymally became the first of only 2 Black lieutenant governors in the U. S. In that position, he would sometimes act as Governor when the Governor was out of state. Also in that position, he was also President of the State Senate, Regent of the University of California and 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.” This was his personal ethic that drove him to serve the people, his family and society in general.
In 1976, while Dymally was lieutenant governor, he was honored by the Brotherhood Crusade as a “pioneer of Black political leadership. The honorees also included Mayor Tom Bradley, Gus Hawkins, Gilbert Lindsay and Supervisor (then Congresswoman) Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who remembers Dymally thus, “I first met Merv just before going into the legislature; my husband had previously worked for him. When the African American Museum was being established, it was Merv that made sure of the legislation. And it was he, along with Teresa Hughes, that got it passed; and even today, Merv and Teresa continue to work together on important issues to the community.”
Dymally also had his share of racial and legal entanglements, in a recent interview in “California Conversations,” the spring 2006 edition, he was asked, “Why was the press after you in those days?” and he reportedly answered, “I didn’t know how to handle the media. I was very intimidated and I fought back. I called them racists and they went after me.”
“Were they racist?” the interviewer then followed up.
Dymally replied, “You know racism is unfortunately a part of the institution in America.” This was when he was lieutenant governor; he lost the race for a second term as lieutenant governor in 1978 and returned to civilian life.
In 1980, he rebounded and was elected to the United States Congress where he served until retiring in 1992. During his tenure, Dymally served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, and established important relations with Caribbean and African countries. In Congress, he was able to introduce legislation for reparations for Japanese-Americans for World War II internment experiences; and to permit Filipino-Americans, World War II veterans to become U.S. citizens.
When Dymally left Congress, after 12 years, he used his time and experience cultivating relationships at home and in countries all over the world. His world view allowed him to visit Cuba’s Fidel Castro, along with Rev. Jesse Jackson; to infuse politics in Trinidad (his homeland) with his American flavor; and create meaningful dialogue to assist Africa with its multitude of human problems. His focus on the disenfranchised can be readily discerned when he stated, “I have been to more than a hundred countries and no country offers opportunity for growth in education, economics and job security as the United States.” He has traveled extensively to Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean as a foreign affairs consultant.
After 10 years, he returned to Sacramento as an assemblyman. Then a congresswoman, Diane Watson said, “Merv Dymally has always been a mover and shaker in state politics. There is probably no one out there more politically-seasoned than Merv, who has gone back to the State Assembly for a second time to show them how to get it done.”
RETURNING TO POLITICS & HIS LAST RETIREMENT
Back in Sacramento, he introduced the first legislation focusing on Blacks and HIV/AIDS, on elder care and abuse, and created African American Political and Economic Institute at California State University, Dominguez Hills, which is in his district. His political leadership is not confined to Black candidates or causes. He has mentored former Assembly speaker Robert Hertzberg, former Councilman Richard Alatorre and many other non-African American politicians.
When Dymally returned as an assembly member, Los Angeles City Council President (then the Speaker of the Assembly), Herb Wesson, Jr., commented: “I have known Merv Dymally my entire life in politics and no one has opened more doors of opportunity for people than my friend, Merv. It was my privilege to serve as his Speaker of the Assembly for two years. He was always the most supportive and loyal ally any Speaker could have.”
After he left the Assembly, he moved to Charles Drew University (CDU) as the director of the Mental Health Institute. There he attempted to re-establish the relationship between CDU and King Hospital. He retired again at the end of 2011 only to return as president of Central Neighborhood Health Foundation (CNHF). As long as Dymally was breathing, he considered it his duty to help others; whether it was in the state legislature, U.S Congress, in Africa or the Caribbean, CDU or CNHF, he worked helping others up to his last days. He retired only in passing.
Dymally was married to Alice Gueno Dymally, a former schoolteacher and has two children, Mark and Lynn, and three grandchildren. On his passing Alice Dymally – who recently lost her mother, Alice Walker Gueno – issued the following statement: “My beloved husband of 44 years Mervyn Dymally passed away very peacefully this morning at 6:30 a.m. He lived a very extraordinary life and had no regrets.”