What makes for a great American? Try this on for size: Among her friends were Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, WEB DuBois, Jessica Mitford, Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou.
When Nelson Mandela first visited the U.S. after being freed, he detoured his two stop tour to head for the Bay Area to honor her and the work she had spearheaded to free him.
She has traveled the world promoting peace and understanding, meeting with Castro in Cuba, Noriega in Panama and Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.
She certainly put her stamp on regional politics, mentoring two congressmembers, three mayors and countless other elected officials and government office holders. "When I was trying to decide about running for Congress," said my predecessor 27 year Housemember Ron Dellums, "she looked me in the eye and told me that I had to run. Then she almost forced our group to nominate me! It was Maudelle who made me run for Congress. Without her support, I would never have been able to do it."
So who is this local icon and world traveler who hobknobs with political and cultural leaders? Maudelle Shirek, Berkeley's longtime Vice Mayor, is a quiet, demur, fashionably dressed senior - raised on a farm in Jefferson, Arkansas and winner of several coveted 4H bake-offs and sewing contests.
Born on the anniversary of Juneteenth, African-American Emancipation Day, Shirek's grandparents themselves had been slaves. After witnessing the lynching of a relative, she abandoned the Jim Crow south for California.
Burnished by memories of injustice, she campaigned tirelessly for fair housing, integrated education, against all forms of discrimination, against war, for women's rights, civil rights and workers rights. Her union activity led to statewide SEIU office. She has been arrested countless times for labor actions and protests. On her 90th birthday, she led a thousand person labor demonstration demanding organizing rights for janitors. As she was the first person arrested, she was serenaded by the huge demonstration singing her Happy Birthday. Police officers cheerfully lined up to have their photos taken with their celebrity arrestee.
It hasn't all been acclaim. Long before the City of Berkeley named its City Hall for her and adorned it with a huge historical mural of her life, they fired her for being too old to run one of the two senior centers that she had founded. Some would say it was politically motivated. But she just turned around, at the age of 72, and began a new career. She ran for City Council to become the boss of those who had fired her. She served 20 years, the last 8 as Vice Mayor of the City, the oldest elected official in the United States.
When she retired, it was proposed that the City name the Main Post Office after its most notable citizen. But Representative Stephen King of Iowa led Republican congressional opposition to block this honor. Rep. King, who favors building a wall across the southern U.S. to keep Mexican immigrants out and who holds disgraced right-wing Senator Joe McCarthy as a personal hero, accused Shirek of having values that "set her apart from, I will say, the most consistent of American values." King who also advocates abolishing the IRS and having Congressmembers who vote for guest worker programs branded with a scarlet A, opposed Shirek's sponsorship of Oakland's Niebyl-Proctor Library, set up by a San Jose State Professor and civil rights activist to study progressive alternatives and "to support emerging struggles for racial and gender equality and for socialism."
Shirek herself was merely bemused. "My values are peace, education and progress. I think these are consistent American values. I'm sorry Representative King doesn't think so. I knew another man named King who shared these values with me."
As she celebrates her 99th birthday this June, she certainly can look back on a life which epitomizes these values.
Cross-posted from the Huffington Post