Friends and loved ones of former Rep. Mervyn Dymally came together at the U.S. Capitol recently to celebrate his life and remember his ground-breaking work representing the Sunshine State. He died in Los Angeles on Oct. 7 at age 86.
At a memorial service Dec. 12 in the Capitol’s Visitors Center in Washington D.C., Dymally was eulogized by several former colleagues, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who spoke of Dymally’s legacy as both a national and state legislator in California. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Dymally’s former House colleague and a legislator who, like him, helped to organize the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), also spoke of his success.
Rangel and Dymally served together in Congress throughout Dymally's tenure, from 1981-1993.
Dymally has been affectionately referred to on Capitol Hill as the “godfather of African-American politics.” Congressional luminaries such as Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and current CBC chair Emmanuel Clever (D-Mo.) all spoke of the legacy Dymally left for Black congressional representatives.
A common theme among the speakers was Dymally’s penchant for opening doors of opportunity to those he employed and mentored, particularly women of color.
A native of Trinidad, Dymally got his start in politics in the California State Assembly in 1963 after years of working as an educator in the Los Angeles area. His political career was a series of firsts. In 1962, he was elected the state’s first foreign-born assemblyman. Four years later, he was elected California’s first Black state senator. In 1974, he became the state’s first and only African American lieutenant governor.
Following his stint as lieutenant governor, he was elected to represent California’s 31st District in Congress.
“I had no idea he was such a political trailblazer,” said Alvincent Huston, a Howard law school student of West Indian heritage who attended the Dymally memorial service. “To have come from such humble beginnings, to have touched the lives of so many people, speaks to the character of the man.”
Dymally made it a priority to meet with dignitaries of lesser-traveled countries, such as Africa, to help solidify U.S. relations with them, authorities said.
“[Dymally] left an impression of what it means to be a well-rounded leader,” said former intern Edith Barley, who worked with Dymally on his efforts in Africa. She is now director of government affairs at the United Negro College Fund.
Dymally’s commitment to public service spanned four decades. After leaving the House of Representatives in 1993, he returned to the California State Assembly, where he served for six additional years.
The eldest of Dymally’s two daughters, Lynn, in a closing statement at the memorial service, recalled her childhood.
“We spent a lot of time [in] campaigns as children,” she said. “He even helped me campaign for office in California. Of course I won.”