John Din­gell, a staunch ally of civil rights

The Detroit News - - OPINIONS -

Dur­ing the throes of the Civil Rights Move­ment, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ex­pressed pro­found dis­ap­point­ment with those whites in po­si­tions of power who re­mained silent in the face of the bla­tant racism toward blacks.

In his “Let­ter from a Birm­ing­ham Jail,” King be­moaned their ac­tions as a lack of courage and vi­sion for creat­ing a fair and just Amer­ica.

“I had hoped that the white moder­ate would see this need. I sup­pose I should have re­al­ized that few mem­bers of the op­pres­sor race can un­der­stand the deep groans and pas­sion­ate yearn­ings of the op­pressed race, and still fewer have the vi­sion to see that in­jus­tice must be rooted out by strong, per­sis­tent and de­ter­mined ac­tion,” King said. “They are still all too few in quan­tity, but they are big in qual­ity.”

John Din­gell, the long­est-serv­ing mem­ber in Congress, who died Thurs­day at 92, was among those few in quan­tity King talked about for his courage and tenac­ity to stand up for civil rights when it was po­lit­i­cally risky to do so. He helped spon­sored the land­mark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In fact, Din­gell would later de­scribe his sup­port of the bill for civil rights as the sin­gle most im­por­tant vote of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

“I knew it was go­ing to hurt me. But I thought some­things you’ve sim­ply got to do some­thing about, and if you have to pay a price for it then by golly you’ve got to do that,” Din­gell said in an in­ter­view.

U.S. Rep. Deb­bie Din­gell, who re­placed her hus­band in 2015 af­ter he re­tired as dean of Congress, told me the day af­ter his death that he did not shy away from do­ing the right thing.

“He knew what the coun­try was do­ing back then wasn’t right,” Din­gell said.

“When he voted for the civil rights bill, the Wall Street Jour­nal said he didn’t have a chance of get­ting re-elected. A cross was burnt on his lawn. John knew what was hap­pen­ing in this coun­try was wrong.”

Din­gell said civil rights hero and Ge­or­gia Rep. John Lewis will speak at the fu­neral, which is slated for Tues­day. The Rev. Jesse Jack­son, pres­i­dent and founder of the Rain­bow PUSH Coali­tion and a for­mer top aide to King, praised Din­gell as a prin­ci­pled leg­is­la­tor.

“What Con­gress­man Din­gell did in sup­port­ing the rights of black peo­ple was not pop­u­lar. You had the South­ern Jef­fer­son Davis Democrats and the North­ern Democrats against us. That was a strange al­liance,” Jack­son said. “He stood with us. He was a work­ing per­son’s per­son. He was an ex­am­ple of lead­er­ship of sub­stance that does not fol­low opin­ion polls.”

Jack­son added, “By tak­ing prin­ci­pled po­si­tions whether it was work­ers’ rights or civil rights, he worked to ad­vance this na­tion. And whether you agreed with him or not he was prin­ci­pled and hon­est.”

Bernard Lafayette, an­other civil rights veteran, who was co­or­di­na­tor of King’s 1968 Poor Peo­ple’s cam­paign, said Din­gell’s al­liance with the Civil Rights Move­ment helped push their de­mands fur­ther for equal rights.

“Napoleon said no revo­lu­tion is won un­less you win the sym­pa­thy if not the ac­tive sup­port of the ma­jor­ity. Din­gell was in the ma­jor­ity, and we in­vited white al­lies be­cause we wanted to be in­clu­sive and show in our ac­tions what our goals were,” Lafayette said. “This was about hu­man­ity and to demon­strate that blacks and whites can work to­gether.”

For state Rep. Ron­nie Peter­son, D-Yp­si­lanti, a close friend of the Din­gells, the pass­ing of the Dean is a re­minder of how to­day’s politi­cians can re­main rel­e­vant and con­sis­tent.

“John Din­gell stood up when we needed him the most. With his sup­port for the civil rights bill he made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to this coun­try,” Peter­son said.

“What he did was bold and al­most risked his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. What we have now are Democrats who won’t stand up for what is right. Very few Democrats have the kind of courage and bold­ness that Din­gell showed when it was not com­fort­able back then. He never ran from an is­sue and made him­self ac­ces­si­ble. He showed up him­self to the meet­ing. We’ve lost a dear friend in the black com­mu­nity.”


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