“Visionary leadership,” astounding “organizational legacies,” and an “iconic” figure are but a handful of the glowing tributes being paid to former California Lieutenant-Governor, Mervyn Malcolm Dymally, who died last week at the age of 86 in his adopted state.
And the rich words of praise for the Trinidad and Tobago born public figure have come from leaders of the Caribbean immigrant community, a law maker in Albany and prominent office holders in California, all of whom share a common assessment: the former Congressman used his half century in various public offices to leave the world a much better place than he found it.
“Mervyn Dymally, single-handedly was the initiator of the nationally organized collective impact of Caribbean-American organizations and leaders through the organization, the National Caribbean Action Lobby’ and the New York state chapter” of that body, said Dr. Waldaba Stewart, a former New York State senator who is currently a professor at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York in Brooklyn.
“I will never forget a meeting that he called in New York at the office of Joseph Barriteau, an official of District Council 37, with about half a dozen of us to whom he outlined the importance of having a national Caribbean presence that would impact on federal, state and local government in areas with large concentrations of Caribbean immigrants, not just those who had recently arrived, but those of second, third and indeed of any generation in this country,” added Stewart. “He then explained to us that he had organized the National Caribbean Action Lobby and he wanted us to launch the New York State chapter of that body. The rest is a matter of record.”
The chapter was formed and as Dr. Stewart explained it, the Lobby “injected itself in the re-apportionment struggle taking place” in New York and worked alongside African-Americans to ensure that some of the new districts were fashioned in such a way that they “could be represented by Caribbean-Americans.
“I trace the presence of the late Shirley Chisholm in Congress to Mervyn Dymally,” he added. “It was out of that context came my election as state senator. It was a district drawn to give representation to a combination of Caribbean-Americans and African-Americans and Caribbean. It was seen as an opportunity for a good Caribbean candidate to compete with other groups and emerge as a consensus representative of that district.”
It was out of that initiative that predominantly Caribbean districts in New York City were formed and that elected West Indians or their children to the City Council and the New York state legislature.
“It ensures in my mind, the role of Mervyn Dismally,” Stewart said.
In a joint tribute heralding his accomplishments, many of the founders of the Caribbean Action lobby and others who later joined in its work cited the emergence and success of several institutions in New York as evidence of Dymally’s success.
“Out of these activities (by the Caribbean Action Lobby) several institutions were born, including the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, CACCI; the Caribbean Women’s Health Association, and the Caribbean Research Center and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York,” stated Dr. Stewart, Barriteau, Dr. Roy Hastick, CACCI’s founder and long-serving president, George Irish, the Research Center’s executive director, former City Council member, Una Clarke, U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke, Colin Moore, an attorney and civil rights campaigner, and Eleanora Bernard, who served on CAL’s executive committee.
“These are organizational legacies of the visionary leadership of Congressman Dymally which continue to serve all people, more specifically immigrant populations.”
Dr. Hastick traced the initial efforts to establish CACCI to Dr. Dymally’s campaign and the discussions he encouraged to fulfill the economic and social development dreams of Caribbean immigrants.
“The talks and the meetings focused on what we were lacking in the Caribbean-American community,” Hastick recalled. “We talked about education and the small business community. It was out of that meeting that the idea of the need for the chamber was explored. We started thinking about starting the American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, not knowing that other individuals, including Karl Rodney, publisher of the Carib News were thinking about the same thing. That’s why I would say yes it was because of Dymally’s involvement, leadership and vision that led us to think outside of the box.”
Dymally was born in Cedros in Trinidad and Tobago on May 12, 1926, and was the son of a Muslim father and a Roman Catholic mother. He came to the U.S. at the age of 19 years mainly to improve his education. He more than fulfilled his dream, securing bachelor’s, master’s and a PhD degree from different accredited universities in California. He later went on head a health institute at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine in South Los Angeles where the School of Nursing carries his name.
But it was as an elected representative serving the interests of some of Los Angeles poorest residents that he made his greatest mark in areas of health, education, housing, and political representation at the state and national levels. From the State Assembly and later the Senate, Dymally blazed a trail that led to his election as California’s first Black Lieutenant-Governor in the 1970s. Next was his ability to capture a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for a dozen years before retiring in 1992. Amazingly, a decade after he left Capitol Hill, he returned to the campaign trail and won the same Assembly District which had sent him to Sacramento, the state capital, more than 40 years earlier. Term limits ended his stay in the lower house and when he sought to move to the Senate where he had been the chamber’s first Black member, he was defeated.
“He was an iconic figure in California politics,” said Assembly Speaker John Perez. “Throughout his time in office, he commanded respect on both sides of the aisle, and was a thoughtful and passionate advocate for the men and women he represented and for the poorest and most valuable Californians. “
Current Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom described Dymally as a “trailblazer who “served many firsts in his 50 year career, establishing a path for future generations of African Americans to follow. A true civil rights leader, he was also instrumental in passing one of the nation’s first gay rights bills in 1975.”
California’s current Attorney-General, Kamala Harris, the first Black to serve in that job, praised Dymally’s “lifelong commitment” to improving people’s lives during his time in Congress, the state legislature and the lieutenant governorship of California.” It’s a record, she says, “ that will continue to inspire us as we work to further the equality that he championed for five decades.”
New York State Assemblyman, Nick Perry, the chamber’s Deputy Majority Leader, called him a “great Caribbean American man” and an outstanding lawmaker.
“It’s my hope that his history, his life and achievements would be taught in the classroom in the Caribbean and the United States,” Perry added.
Barriteau, a Dymally boyhood friend, going back to their early years in Trinidad and Tobago, said that “we in the trenches fought for the labor movement” in his birthplace and the U.S. He maintained that “deep and abiding interest in the less fortunate, those who needed trade union representation the most.”
Barriteau, retired several years ago after decades as a senior official of District Council 37, added, It was his inspiration “that led us to establish the Caribbean Action lobby that made such an important difference in our lives as immigrants.”