Maudelle Shirek, who served 20 years as an elected Berkeley leader and a lifetime as an advocate for justice, died last Thursday in a hospice in Vallejo. She was 101.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Maudelle Shirek, and my thoughts and prayers go out to her friends and family,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee. “Maudelle was truly the “godmother of East Bay progressive politics.”
“I believe Maudelle’s legacy of over 70 years of service to Berkeley, the East Bay, the nation, and the world will inspire many to speak for the voiceless and stand up for justice across the globe. I will deeply miss her wise counsel, support, and love,” said Lee.
The former City of Berkeley vice mayor and eight-term council member was born and raised in Jefferson, Arkansas. As the granddaughter of slaves, she was passionate about justice and civil rights.
After moving to Berkeley in the 1940’s, she became active in the anti-war movement, fought on behalf of unions, advocated for HIV/AIDS awareness, and helped organize the Free Mandela Movement. She was the first elected official in the United States to advocate for needle-exchange programs.
During her tenure as a Berkley elected official, she was instrumental in creating multiple city commissions, including the Berkeley Commission on Labor. When she retired at 92, she was the oldest elected official in California. In 2007, the Berkeley City Council renamed City Hall in her honor.
Lee reminisced about the impact Shirek had on her life after the two met in 1970s while Lee was a student at Mills College.
“She widened my perspective on global politics during our travels around the world including Vienna, Prague, Cuba, and Czechoslovakia. She reinforced the idea that we are all part of a global family, and what happens here in the United States effects our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and vice versa. Since that time, Maudelle has been a personal friend, mentor, and confidante.”
A woman of many interests, Shirek was also a health aficionado, said Lee. “She was committed to educating seniors and the entire community on the benefits of healthy living. She loved shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables and you would often find her cooking nutritious meals at the New Light Senior Center.
“We loved to walk Lake Merritt and the Berkeley Marina together where she would talk to me about acupuncture, natural remedies like cayenne pepper and warm water for colds. We also traveled to Calistoga many times because of her love for mud baths and their healing properties.”
Shirek was a woman of great faith, Lee continued. “ During the 70s, we enjoyed attending the Church for Today together,” Lee said. “This is where I realized that her passion for service and justice was driven by her commitment to what she called, ‘doing the Lord’s work on earth.’ I will never forget the day she introduced me to the late Rev. Dr. W. Hazaiah Williams, and I will never forget the impact that they both had on my life.”
Maudelle Shirek was called “the mother of progressive politics”, the “conscience of the council” the “Godmother of bay area politics”, the “lioness of activism” and many other endearing names by the residents of Berkeley. Through the years she outlived all those who called her derogatory names for her efforts to make government responsive to all, especially the needy. As a member of Church for Today, a supporter of the children’s music programs, especially at Martin Luther King Jr.Middle School and as a patron of Four Seasons, she rallied the support of the Post News Group to raise funds to support arts programs for youth and seniors. The stentorian sound of her prodigious voice not only caused everyone to listen, but it energized Berkeley’s residents to become actively involved in the fights for change and respect.
Every public building, except the Post Office, carries the residue of her political DNA and her leadership legacy.