Mervyn Dymally: travels and intrigues

Gregg Reese | 9/26/2012, 5 p.m.

The narrative of Mervyn Malcolm Dymally's journey from rural Trinidad to the United States political arena is a unique coming-of-age story set to be chronicled in an upcoming autobiography.

Dymally's formal exposure to local and global affairs came at 17, when he became a journalist with the Vanguard, a Trinidadian publication that started as the official newspaper for the National Oilfield Workers Trade Union. His appetite whetted, Dymally set out for the United States in 1946. His pursuit of an education led him to such varied locales as Anderson, Ind., Jefferson City, Mo., and Dayton, Ohio, as well as an extended stay in New York, where he took in that city's cultural amusements by becoming a regular attendee at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

His wanderings across the continental U.S. terminated in Southern California, where he continued his education, first at Chapman University, then at Los Angeles City College.

Coming from the east, the climate in his new digs was, in his word, "paradise." Within this balmy oasis however, existed a political environment every bit as temperamental and aggravating as the harsh winters he'd left behind.

In addition to its moderate temperature and academic opportunities, the Southland offered other agreeable attractions. Dymally rented living quarters from iconic pianist and singer Charles Brown of "Merry Christmas, Baby" fame, and began to acquaint himself with his adopted hometown. The Caribbean expatriate's entry into the fellowship of Kappa Alpha Psi afforded him social interactions with such notable fraternity members as Tom Bradley, and others who would stand out on the California horizon.
Turmoil in paradise
Balmy climate notwithstanding, the City of Angels had its share of turmoil on the streets and in the back rooms of its powerbrokers. Nationally, the 1950s were a significant period for all people of color. Dymally was especially motivated by the example set by activists in and around Greensboro, N.C., and, buoyed by the mentoring of future political consultant Joe Cerrell, he became active with the Young Democrats and the subsequent presidential campaign of John Kennedy in 1960.

In the course of his duties, Dymally made the acquaintance of California's two principal Democratic players: Alan Cranston, scion of a prominent Northern California family and future U.S. senator, and the larger-than-life political powerbroker Jess "Big Daddy" Unruh. One other figure made an impact on the budding politician--the pioneering legislator and mentor to generations of aspiring lawmakers, Augustus F. Hawkins.

Hawkins' style, in Dymally's words was "absolutely cool, nothing fazed him." A chance encounter at a Fresno conference in 1961 led the upstart to give the elder statesman a ride back to Los Angeles, and during the course of the trip south, the decision was made for the younger man to run for Hawkins' vacated state Assembly seat. (Hawkins was about to run for and win a seat in Congress.)

En route to his own victory in the Assembly, circa 1962, Dymally made another fateful contact when, while strolling the streets with Gov. Pat Brown, he came upon, in the parlance of his native Trinidad, a "swagger boy."