Representative Barbara Lee has had a proposal before Congress to name the Berkeley Post Office after 94 year-old civil rights pioneer Maudelle Shirek.

Ms. Shirek has been a tireless and unabashed fighter from the progressive left.  The granddaughter of slaves, Ms. Shirek spent sixty years in the Bay Area working on justice issues.  When she was forced, by age requirements, to retire from a senior center she founded, Ms. Shirek ran for Berkeley City Council, was elected and served for the next twenty years, towards the end of which she was criticized by some for ‘moderating’ her views.

Looking at her life achievement, however, Berkeley could find few citizens who represent the city’s values and spirit so well or whose life story is so worthy of tribute.  That won’t stop the GOP from opposing the simple local act of honoring her.
The article from SF Gate spells it out:

Washington — House Republicans rejected an effort Tuesday to name a post office in Berkeley after longtime Berkeley Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek after a conservative lawmaker questioned whether the 94-year-old activist represents American values.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, has been trying for more than two years to name the city’s main post office on Allston Way for Shirek, a civil rights leader and peace activist who served on the Berkeley City Council for 20 years.

But House Republicans have sought to block the effort, mostly through a whisper campaign about her reported past ties to communist leaders and left-wing causes. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, objected Tuesday to Lee’s proposal and rallied Republicans to defeat the measure in an unusual roll call vote.

Representative Steve King from Iowa opposes naming a post office for Shirek because, out of her lifetime’s work he has pulled out two supposed moments of “anti-Americanism.”  First, Ms. Shirek, according to the whisper campaign, supported “freeing” Mumia Abu-Jamal.  Second, she was…shhhh….associated with the Neibyl-Proctor Socialist Library and Bookstore in Berkeley.  (We’re talking about a bookstore, friends, some five blocks from my house, by the way…and hardly a threat to anyone…unless discussing social justice and socialism is “a threat.”)

When Barabara Lee spoke out and said that this “campaign of innuendo and unsubstantiated ‘concern’ is better suited to the era of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover than today’s House of Representatives.”  Representative King responded with this riposte:

“I think that if Barbara Lee would read the history of Joe McCarthy, she would realize that he was a hero for America.”

There’s really not much to say in response to that.  And I’m aware that the screaming moderates among us will quake in fear over Ms. Shirek’s ‘advocacy’ for Mumia Abu-Jamal. If you ask me we should ask Rep. King to show us some quotes from Ms. Shirek to back up his claims, this is the best I could find and it doesn’t support King:

“Maudelle is one of the most amazing organizers in the country,” said [Angela] Davis, who was also arrested at the demonstration. “She’s still on the front lines.”

The demonstration was held in support of a fair trial for Abu-Jamal, a black radio journalist who was convicted of killing a police officer 15 years ago.

Shirek’s aide, Mike Berkowitz, said Shirek thinks Abu-Jamal’s pending execution could be likened to a legal lynching.

She thinks the process was flawed and it’s possible he’s innocent,” he said.

Shirek is especially sensitive to this issue because she remembers the lynching of one of her relatives in Arkansas, Berkowitz added.

Further, this article that mentions her Mumia activism explicitly, (which, let’s get real, she took up in her eighties) makes it clear that in the context of her life’s work, her stance on Mumia could only seem “damning” if you were a hard core right-winger. I mean, there is no doubt upon reading that biography that Ms. Shirek is anything but an admirable American. Quite frankly, I’d rather pay attention to things that Ms. Shirek did over her lifetime of activism, things that she had real control over…like her work on East Bay labor campaigns, AIDS advocacy, senior rights and international outreach for peace and human rights. At the end of the day our answer to this GOP dust up should be this question:

If Congressman King really feels so strongly about the purity of American values, when will he propose that this country take down the names of all the slave holders, segregationists and Jim Crow advocates that we honor on countless signs and monuments throughout this country?

The GOP, including the President, all get up and praise Jesse Helms and build institutes around his name…do any of us think the following statements will stop Jesse Helms from getting a post office named after him?

All Latins are volatile people. Hence, I was not surprised at the volatile reaction.” – Stated by Helms after Mexicans protested his visit to Mexico in 1986 to investigate allegations of political corruption.

The University of Negroes and Communists.” – Helms’s name for the The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during the mid-1960’s, shortly after it began admitting black students. (FAIR 9/1/01, National Review 8/23/01)

White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.” – From an attack ad Helms helped create while working on the 1950 campaign of arch-segregationist Democrat Willis Smith against a more moderate Democrat, Frank Porter Graham. Another ad featured photographs Helms himself had doctored to illustrate the allegation that Graham’s wife had danced with a black man. (FAIR 9/1/01, The News and Observer 8/26/01)

Homosexuals are weak, morally sick wretches.” and    “The New York Times and Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals themselves. Just about every person down there is a homosexual or lesbian.”

(source, Wiki-Jesse Helms)

Clearly, whether it’s Jesse Helms or Joe McCarthy, there is nothing, including outright hypocrisy, that has ever stopped the GOP from honoring, naming and praising their own.  Now they want to stop the city of Berkeley from naming its Post Office for one black woman who more than paid her dues in the struggle for peace and justice??

I’ve titled this piece, in the “Shadow of Sister Souljah: Maudelle Shirek vs. the GOP” because, in addition to bringing your attention to this local story, I think there’s a broader point to be made here.

In my 36 years coming up in this world I’ve met, come to know and worked under many strong black women like Maudelle Shirek, some of them were overtly political, some of them weren’t.  But, I dare say that, in my experience, this country would be better served if a thousand Maudelle Shireks ran our government, our schools, our Army, and our cities rather than politicians like Steve King, Jesse Helms and George W. Bush.

Truth be told, in my experience, African-American women, and women of color in general, know a thing or two about what’s really wrong with this country, and I would say, based on my life experience, that women like Maudelle Shirek and Barbara Lee are more than capable of cutting through the BS that characterizes much of the spouting I read in the political world every day.  In my view, it is a crime and true loss to our nation that there are no women of color on our Senate floor.

Truth be told, when Bill Clinton attacked Lisa Williamson, aka Sister Souljah, whatever the merits of his criticism….he set us all back because he played into the deep racial subtext of this country.  That attack made it “okay” to attack women of color…it emboldened GOP nutjobs like Steve King.  It made it easy for white Democrats to run away from the their black brothers and sisters and demonize leaders like Jesse Jackson or Maudelle Shirek.

You see, everything we do and say has a context.  When Bill Clinton attacked Sister Souljah he validated GOP attacks on people who’ve given their lives and efforts to the cause of justice…he joined forces with the worst our nation has to offer.  It may seem to score us points with the middle, but in the long run the far-right will just kick us further back, and, in the last ten years…they have.  What Clinton should have done was praised a positive example, like Maudelle Shirek, not torn down a negative one and played to the right.  Bill Clinton should have stood up for the unrepresented citizens of Washington D.C. not attacked a straw woman who had little or no real power.

We may or may not succeed in naming this Post Office for a woman who, by all rights, is a local hero. I’m  hoping we do.   What I’m trying to say is that there are thousands of Maudelle Shireks out there today…women of color, of all backgrounds, living and working in this country;  many of them are women of high accomplishment and principle, like Bunnatine Greenhouse and non-voting Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. (Wiki link.)

It’s high time the Democrats started listening to women of color and investing in their voices and leadership. We need more leaders like Ms. Shirek, and the highest honor the Democratic Party and progressives could give this 94 year-old woman who lives in Berkeley to this day would be to fight to make real the values she fought for her whole life. That, in my view, would be the most fitting tribute to Maudelle Shirek and her life’s work and journey.

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