Maudelle Shirek, conscience of the Berkeley City Council, dies at 101
By JUDITH SCHERR April 15, 2013
BERKELEY — Maudelle Shirek, city council member for 20 years, is best known for her public face: picketing the Port of Oakland to protest a shipping company doing business with apartheid South Africa, or getting handcuffed at the Claremont Hotel supporting workers organizing a union. Less well known are her visits to families in crisis or the times she brought food to an ailing elder and stayed to scrub the floors.
Shirek died peacefully Thursday night in hospice in Vallejo at the age of 101.“She was a woman who understood that she had to have a comprehensive agenda,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, whom Shirek mentored. “It couldn’t just be about health care or seniors or peace and justice, but it had to be about change.”
Shirek, whose grandparents were slaves, was born Maudelle Miller June 18, 1911 in Jefferson, Ark. She grew up on a farm and learned to love cooking with fresh healthy ingredients, according to her longtime friend and campaign manager, Mike Berkowitz. After witnessing the lynching of a relative, she moved in the 1940s to Berkeley, where she worked on issues such as integration of the military and fair housing issues. In the 1960s, she worked to get blacks hired as sales people on San Francisco’s auto row.
She married political activist Brownlee Shirek in the mid-1960s. As office manager at the Berkeley Consumers Coop Credit Union and then a member of the board Shirek “used her knowledge and experience to get loans (that low income) people wouldn’t necessarily have for cars and house repairs and things like that,” said former Mayor Gus Newport, a longtime friend and political ally.
Shirek worked for the city as a senior center director. But, as part of political machinations of the time, according to Berkowitz, Shirek was fired and told that, in her early 70s, she was too old to work there. Shirek’s vengeance was to turn around and run for City Council. She won the race and continued to sit on the council for eight terms. Serving from 1984 to 2004, she became known as the “Conscience of the Council.”
Among the issues she championed was stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. Berkowitz, recalled that in the late 1980s Shirek “chained herself to the doors of the AIDS ward at Highland Hospital so they wouldn’t close it.” Shirek won council approval of Berkeley’s needle exchange program to prevent the spread of HIV through contaminated needles.
Lee credits Shirek with encouraging her to become active in the fight against AIDS. “She made sure I knew exactly what the issues were and that I took it on as part of my work,” Lee said. On Shirek’s council watch, Berkeley became the first city to divest in companies doing business with South Africa and the first city to provide domestic benefits to same sex partners, Newport said.
Some, like longtime council colleague Betty Olds, thought she was “too drastic — too radical.” Olds said Shirek “thought we should all give our money to the poor.” Still, Olds said she admired Shirek for being “a strong person.”
Newport said there were also people in Berkeley Citizens Action — the political party that supported Shirek — who thought she was “too far to the left.” But, Newport said, “Maudelle’s absolute concern was with the poor.”
Lee recalled how Shirek was red-baited when she tried to get Congress to name the downtown Berkeley post office after her. “It was the saddest day of my congressional life,” Lee said. “We got to the floor. No one ever loses a post office bill — right? (Congressman Steve) King from Iowa pulled it … and started red-baiting her and trying to malign her character. It was disgusting.”
Berkeley renamed Old City Hall for her in 2007.
Shirek’s health declined over the last decade. Her niece, Renee Kitchen, made sure she had 24-hour care in her home and oatmeal and blueberries for breakfast every day.
But three months ago the family decided to move Shirek to the nursing facility in Vallejo, near Kitchen’s home.
On Thursday, Kitchen said her aunt looked somehow different. “I told her to let go” and that she knew Shirek was tired, Kitchen said. An hour and a half after she left, the nursing home called to say she had died.
In addition to Kitchen, Shirek leaves her sisters Neodros Bridgeforth and Lennie Jean Draughan and many nieces, nephews and cousins. A public memorial service is being planned.