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Mervyn Dymally: travels and intrigues

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

"Young man, I want you to meet the governor. Are you registered to vote?" Dymally asked Ken Orduna, the man who would become his trusted adviser and chief assistant.

"He (Orduna) mumbled something," Dymally continued, "and took off to the nearest fire station" to register.

Over the next decades, Orduna himself was a focal point in California government as the indispensable campaign coordinator for local candidates, including Tom Bradley on his historical quest and victory in the Los Angeles mayoral race.

Dymally and Orduna were especially motivated by civil rights icon Bayard Rustin's 1964 essay "From Protest to Politics," in which he advocated an alliance between the Democratic Party and the Civil Rights Movement. After serving in the Assembly, Dymally ran and won a seat as state senator in 1967.

Rustin again prompted Dymally into action a few years later when Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver made his 1975 return to the United States after several years of exile in Europe and North Africa. During his years as an international fugitive, the former bicycle thief, marijuana dealer, and rapist also had fallen out of favor with Black Panther Party co-founders Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and the rest of the party hierarchy, the result being that an assassination plot was hatched against the newly returned exile, to be carried out when Cleaver was taken into custody at the Alameda County jail.

This tidbit had been passed along by Rustin to Dymally, who by now was California's lieutenant governor. Radical politics or not, Dymally reasoned that Cleaver was still a member of his constituency, and thus deserving of protection. He, in turn, passed this information on to the California Department of Justice, and Cleaver was secured in the (relative) safety of the state prison system.

In later years, Cleaver went through incarnations as a born-again Christian, a baptized member of the Mormon faith, an exponent of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church, and finally a conservative Republican and a major critic of his former benefactor, Merv Dymally.

Dymally was the only elected official to mentor and support groups like CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Black Student Movement, as well as the Black Congress and its financial arm, the Brotherhood Crusade.
Dymally's position and experience were essential in teaching these groups to maneuver and utilize the system in the pursuit of their goals and advancing their cause.

Dymally's progressive stance earned him the antagonism of many of his colleagues across the conservative political spectrum. He became a principal target of the FBI's "Operation Fruehmenschen" (German for "primitive man"), a program designed to discredit Black elected officials on the grounds they were mentally and socially inappropriate to head governmental agencies.

This witch hunt included scrutiny by the Justice Department and the IRS, which audited his tax returns back to 1947, finding only that the government owed him a grand total of 89 cents.
Even so, he worked tirelessly behind the scenes to neutralize the volatile relations between Blacks and local, state, and federal entities as well as law enforcement. Others who toiled to prevent bloodshed were LAPD officers Duwayne Rice, Edward Henry, and former chief and present councilman Bernard Parks. Their efforts are a part of a forgotten segment of Los Angeles history that has yet to be told.