Black and Jewish legislators, colleagues and friends of Rep. Julian C. Dixon, who died on Dec. 8 at the age of 66, spoke to The Journal this week about a man they regarded as a bridge-builder -- a quiet and unassuming but highly gifted and dedicated champion of civil rights and Black-Jewish friendship over a period of 30 years.
"He was basically a mensch, " said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "A lot of folks out there make their noise in terms of decibels. He was a coalition-builder and a listener. Julian Dixon was not soft-spoken because he had nothing to say. He had plenty to say, and he had plenty of impact on how things got done."
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) called Dixon "a congressman's congressman. He was highly regarded as a professional. He was a man who was able to build links across partisan lines, ideological differences and between Jews and Blacks."
Like many others, Cooper spoke of Dixon's seriousness of purpose and ability to rise above partisanship. He noted that "the good news" about Dixon's achievement was the reminder that for many years, on the local and Congressional level in urban centers around the country, urban coalitions have worked "despite the Jesse problems and the Farrakhan outrages."
Norman Hill, president of the Washington-based A. Philip Randolph Insitutute, noted that "Dixon, while very much a here-and-now person, carried forward the great tradition of Black-Jewish relationship into a new day, time and context. It is a tradition going back to the formation of the NAACP and forged by such pioneers as Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis."
Dixon represented the 32nd Congressional District, which took in the USC area, Culver City, the Crenshaw district, Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, Koreatown, Leimert Park, Cheviot Hills and Mar Vista. He supported causes ranging from civil rights to the city's subway project and secured funds to aid communities hit by base closings and other defense cutbacks. He was also an important lawmaker on national security issues. He was the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. He served as a chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and was a leader in the mid-1980s of efforts to impose economic sanctions against South Africa.
Dixon's district has a large Jewish constituency, and he seemed almost as linked to the Jewish community as he was to the African-American community. Howard Welinsky, Democratic activist and leader of Democrats for Israel, noted that on the subject of Israeli issues, "frequently Julian was ahead of me. When it came to Julian's committee or subcommittee assignments, I'd get a call from him discussing it and relating it to his ability to help Israel -- why he thought it would be better if he made this move or that move. Always, when it came to the big picture, he could see it way ahead of time. For instance, on foreign aid, Julian would say: 'If I'm on this subcommittee, I can help the foreign aid bill here.' It was always, how could he help? And it was from the heart."
"Julian Dixon was the consummate coalition politician," Rep. Howard Berman, a Democrat who represents the East San Fernando Valley, told The Journal. "He was an African-American congressman, but he was never just a congressman for African-Americans. He cared deeply about the Jewish community. And the Jewish people cared deeply about him. He could go into either community as if it was his own. He was really beloved as a human being. His effectiveness was due to his reaching across these lines of ethnicity and working in coalitions, not seeing everything from the prism of one's own ethnic group. And doing it for everybody, not just for one group."
David Lehrer, regional director of the ADL, also spoke to The Journal about Dixon as "a remarkable bridge-builder between communities. He was trusted, admired and effective in the African-American community, the Jewish community, and really across the spectrum. He was a giant figure on the L.A. political scene for decades."
"What a friend the Jewish community has lost," said Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, whose district encompasses Watts. "Julian and Howard Berman were brothers. They loved each other. They represent the spirit by which we continue our partnership."
Millender-McDonald said that Dixon never "regarded his position as one that should have a certain sense of aloofness. He always felt he should stay a commoner himself, and he never did call attention to himself. I often said to him, 'Are you bashful or what?' He said, 'Me, bashful?' and he would laugh."
She compared Dixon to A. Philip Randolph, the legendary civil rights leader who formulated the 1963 March on Washington and headed the first Black-led union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. "I met Randolph in Birmingham, Ala., when I was a child. He was so gentle, and then when he spoke he had such conviction. And he achieved historic, critical gains for the Black community. They called him 'the gentle warrior.' And I called Julian the 'quiet giant.'"
Welinsky echoed this view of Dixon. "He always knew how to bring people together and get things done," Welinsky noted. "He was never big on hogging the glory or putting his name on the bill. Just get the job done."
It was this humanity -- his simplicity, lack of affectation and ability to listen carefully and deeply -- that endeared many to Dixon.
Ed Johnson, field deputy for Dixon, spoke with sadness about a working relationship and friendship that ended after 22 years. "He was very good at listening," he remarked. "What was on your mind was always important to him.
Bob Manley, regional director of the California Democratic Party, reflected on Dixon's modesty. "It was never like his head got big, as successful as he was. That is so rare with electeds. Even the ones who ain't too much; they think they're God's gift to the world. Even when they're just skating. Julian, he was unsung. He worked like hell, but you'd never know it. He didn't need the limelight. But he still had fun." Summing up a legacy, Terence Montgomery, head of the 47th Assembly District Committee, which is comprised mainly of Black and Jewish members, reflected on Julian Dixon. "If Julian had one central message, it was, 'We can all be together and we can work this thing out,' " Montgomery said. "He was like the calm in the midst of the storm. Among all the loud voices of many people, Julian was able to hear a message and bring people to a resolution."
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