BERKELEY, Calif. — It was like a big, loving family reunion as community leaders and activists streamed into St. Paul AME Church Dec. 10 to pay tribute to Maudelle Shirek, now 94, who left the City Council last year after 20 years of service. Speaker after speaker recounted the ways Shirek had profoundly affected the course of their lives.
“She taught me why my life had to be for social justice,” Rep. Barbara Lee told the crowd as she described how Shirek had mentored her during Lee’s years as a UC Berkeley student and in her earliest forays into social activism.
Of Shirek’s effect on former Congressman Ronald Dellums — now a candidate for mayor of Oakland — Lee observed, “Ron would never have gone to Congress and served so brilliantly for 27 years without Maudelle’s inspiration.”
“I have grown into who I am largely by watching her,” said Berkeley Citizens’ Action co-chair and long-time friend Jesse Anthony. “The Maudelles of the world are the ones who help us understand that a new day is coming, that the world can be better and we have a responsibility to make it so.”
A surprise participant was Robert Chambers, candidate for the U.S. House from Iowa’s 5th Congressional District. Chambers is running to replace Rep. Steve King, the extreme right-wing Republican who last fall blocked Lee’s motion in Congress to name the Berkeley Post Office after Shirek, citing her association with progressive causes. Saying that King doesn’t speak for all of Iowa, he said, “I extend an apology to Maudelle, to Barbara Lee and to the people of Berkeley.” The crowd burst into applause.
Shirek herself drew a standing ovation as she declared, in the powerful, resonant voice for which she is noted, “The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated. Like Santa, I’m watching who’s good — like working for affordable housing — and who’s not.”
Among several proclamations and certificates was one presented by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates declaring Dec. 10 “Maudelle Shirek Day.” The City Council has voted unanimously to name Old City Hall for her. A mural is being commissioned for the building, depicting the history of African Americans in the city, with Shirek as the central figure.
The program was chaired by Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and Berkeley City Councilmember Max Anderson. Outstanding performances were contributed by vocalist Anna de Leon, writer/performer Aya de Leon, the Roots of Unique Awareness Children’s Choir and singers of the Young Adult Project.