New Orleans The news broke like a cold chill on an unbelievably warm and humid New Orleans December day.
Nelson Mandela, the great South African freedom fighter, who with perseverance and countless comrades and allies, was able to see the end of the cruelty and injustice of apartheid and assist as President in ushering in the transition to majority, black rule in his country. His passing at 95 as a giant in our pantheon of world figures dominates the news and will serve as a beacon of hope and a reminder of the need for constant resistance as long as there are memories and people fighting for justice.
On the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid, an Organizers’ Forum delegation of twenty labor and community organizers had visited Johannesburg and Cape Town, meeting with countless community groups, labor unions, and political organizations to assess the changes. We took the boat over to Robben Island and all stood at the door of Mandela’s small cell where he spent almost 18 years of his 27 years in prison. We walked by the rock quarry where they worked to no purpose. There was a terrible stillness in the isolation, but at the same time a powerful beauty when we looked over the vast water, thinking we could almost see Argentina across the southern Atlantic. I’ll never forget the cell, but neither will I ever forget the surprise at the troops of small penguins scurrying about everywhere we went on the island.
Hardly an hour before, I had gotten a roundabout message that Dewey Armstrong, a 10-year veteran of ACORN’s earliest days had lost his last campaign against cancer several weeks ago. I had talked to Dewey only a dozen days before his death. He was in pain, but more than the morphine spoke enthusiastically about his deep feeling that he might have some “surprises” in store as he told me about having gotten out of bed and sweeping his sidewalk. He was fighting to the end.
Dewey was Dewitt Armstrong IV and the son and grandson of generals. Farther back in his long military lineage was George Armstrong Custer, also a relative. He came to me from Chapel Hill where he had gone to school and was a solid, serious, and inspired community organizer. He accepted the task in 1975 of going to Sioux Falls, South Dakota as head organizer there to build the first expansion project as ACORN began to grow past Arkansas. Later he was ACORN’s first political director and managed the 20/80 ACORN delegation in 1980 at the New York Convention where we won the low income representation commission chaired by then Congressman Mickey Leland from Houston. He did good work for us along with many others from the formative, heroic days of ACORN’s early years.
For an organizer Dewey was a quiet man, sometimes whimsical and a master of the clever, circular argument. He was quick with praise for his staff and colleagues and ready to serve. He was a romantic, not uncommon among organizers, but often unrecognized. He believed in “love at first sight.” He believed in making “hopping john” and taking it around on New Year’s Day to everyone. He and Val Jonas’ daughter, Hannah, was born in New Orleans exactly one year to the day after our son, Chaco, was born. After ten years, he wanted to express himself differently and learned to be a carpenter and woodworker, which he did the rest of his life, mostly in the Miami area. After 20 years, I got an email out of the blue from Dewey five years ago. He was recovering from years of medical problems and wanted to help. In 2010, we visited in Miami when he did a master class on the great 20/80 campaign for the ACORN Canada staff at their Year End/ Year Begin meeting. He pulled out some old relics from the campaign including buttons and posters and brought them to the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana where we met.
There are generals in the people’s army, like Nelson Mandela, who are irreplaceable, but so are the infantry soldiers, captains, and colonels, like Dewey Armstrong who quietly stand tall and do the work that has to be done, when it has to be done, and wherever it must be done. These are different men, but I mourn their passing equally and am thankful for their contributions and in Dewey’s case for his gifts to me as comrade and friend.