BERKELEY, Calif. - Family and friends of longtime Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek packed the City Hall that bears her name April 30 to celebrate the life of the woman dubbed "the conscience of the council," who died April 11 at the age of 101.
Shirek was born and raised in Jefferson, Ark. After witnessing a relative's lynching, she moved to Berkeley in the 1940s.
At age 72, Shirek was fired from her job running one of two senior centers she founded, because she was "too old." She then ran successfully for the city council, becoming the boss of those who had fired her. She served for 20 years, the last eight of them as vice mayor. When she retired at 92, she was the oldest elected official in the U.S.
Leading the tribute to Shirek was U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who called Shirek "a personal friend, mentor and confidante."
Terming Shirek "the godmother of the progressive movement," Lee said her background as the granddaughter of slaves gave her a powerful impetus to fight for freedom and justice: "She showed us all ... how to really lead."
Lee told of meeting Shirek when as a Mills College student in the 1970s, Lee was helping to organize the college's first trip to Africa. Mills had a special semester during which students "could go to Europe, or anywhere in the world. And you know me, I had to kind of stir the pot, and organize the students about why couldn't we have a term where we would study in Africa." Shirek "helped the students win that first study term in Africa."
Lee and other speakers recounted Shirek's leadership in the anti-apartheid movement, her advocacy for awareness and effective treatment of HIV/AIDS, her pioneering work for needle exchange programs, her campaigning for public housing, her promotion of healthy food, and her deep religious faith.
Among other speakers were Gus Newport, a former mayor of Berkeley, and its present mayor, Tom Bates.
Newport called Shirek "the most complete activist for social justice and concern for the poor, that I've ever known in my life."
Bates emphasized Shirek's optimism and determination: "If she said something would happen, it would!" and said the former councilwoman "set a standard for our community that will last."
Shirek's nephew, Ronald Bridgeforth, shared the story of how in the mid-1930s, as a young teacher in a segregated one-room schoolhouse in Arkansas, she defended her African American students in a potentially deadly situation.
"One morning the kids came running in, frightened," Bridgeforth recounted. "While they were coming to school they had seen the bus carrying the white kids to their school slow down so the white students could taunt the black kids. One of the black students, a young boy, had picked up a branch and hit the side of the bus, catching a little white girl in the face.
"It was not long before the constable showed up and demanded to know who had done the deed. But before anyone could say anything, Maudelle stepped forward and told the bus drive he was wrong to slow down so the kids could be taunted.
"Without hesitation, she told him, 'If you want to take somebody this morning, then take me.' In the face of her defiance and the truth of her witness, the constable beat a hasty retreat.
The tribute was chaired by Michael Berkowitz, a longtime special aide to Shirek, and former planning commissioner for the City of Berkeley.
Photo: In 2007, Berkeley unveiled this mural to honor former City Councilmember Maudelle Shirek (via Berkeley City Council).