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Congress snubs bid to honor Berkeley's ailing matriarch

Name-change for post office was voted down

BERKELEY, Calif. -- When Maudelle Shirek lost her city job two decades ago because, at 73, she was deemed too old, she fought back by getting herself elected to the City Council and promptly led the charge to dismantle the city's policy on compulsory retirement.

Throughout her long life, the 94-year-old granddaughter of slaves has been a crusader for civil rights, the poor, senior nutrition, affordable housing, and various antiwar movements, and social causes. Over the years, she has been a fixture at Bay Area demonstrations, her silver Afro standing out among youthful throngs.

She celebrated her 90th birthday at a union rally outside a Berkeley resort, where police reportedly joined to serenade her before hauling her off in handcuffs along with other protesters.

Shirek added to Berkeley's reputation as a runaway republic, a city with a foreign policy all its own, by taking her causes abroad -- to Central America to support the rights of indigenous people, and to the Middle East, where she protested Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Back at home, she chained herself to a fence at a Pennsylvania plant that manufactured tear gas used against Palestinians.

''She's been arrested time and time again because she never backed away from fighting for social justice," saidBarbara Lubin, one of Shirek's longtime friends and political allies and executive director of the Middle East Children's Alliance, a group sympathetic to Palestinians.

''We revere Maudelle Shirek like we revere Martin Luther King Jr.," Lubin said, a sentiment echoed by others who consider Shirek the conscience of a city where ''thinking globally, acting locally" is a mantra.

In this city of activism, Shirek is a venerated icon. She founded two senior centers. Over the years, she influenced generations of civic leaders, most notably Ron Dellums, the former US representative who rose to lead the House Armed Services Committee. Dellums, a Democrat and a pacifist, credits Shirek with launching his political career in 1967 by urging him to run for a seat on the Berkeley City Council.

Her admirers, seeking to memorialize her legacy, sought congressional approval to rename the city's downtown post office in her honor. But Republicans, led by the conservative Representative Steve King of Iowa, unexpectedly scuttled the accolade sought by a Shirek protegee, Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Oakland.

King said Shirek wasn't in line with ''American values" and suggested that she had an ''affiliation with the Communist Party," citing her connection to the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library in Oakland, which describes itself as ''an alternative library for social research."

He also took issue with Shirek's support for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a cause celebre among some activists who say the black journalist and taxi driver, in prison in the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer, was wrongly convicted.

''That a Republican from Iowa could launch a campaign to deny naming a local post office after this 94-year-old civil rights leader, who until recently was the oldest and one of the longest serving elected officials in California, is just shameful," Lee said in a prepared statement. ''Mr. King's 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."

King responded by saying that McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator who launched hearings to uncover communist sympathizers in the 1950s -- and was later censured by the Senate -- was an ''American hero."

But back home in Iowa, there was a backlash. The Des Moines Register expressed regret for twice endorsing King for Congress, calling his opposition to rename the Berkeley post office ''bizarre" and ''a petty, mean-spirited act of political retribution against a 94-year-old woman.

''Political vindictiveness doesn't get much more petty than that," the paper said in an editorial calling for challengers to oppose King next year.

''To say that Joe McCarthy is a hero is frightening and shocking," said Lubin, who said Shirek, a registered Democrat, is no communist, despite her nominal connection to the Marxist library and the fact that she once had dinner with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Library officials called the matter a ''red-baiting" case of guilt by association, although the library's website lists Shirek as one of 17 sponsors. Bob Patenaude, the library's executive director, has said that some sponsors, like Shirek, are noncommunist liberals who have expressed support for the facility, which is sometimes used as a meeting place for activists.

Shirek, whose health has been failing since a stroke earlier this year, was unavailable for an interview and has not commented publicly on the dispute. But many in this city have rallied in support, and civic leaders appear more determined than ever to honor the community matriarch.

A committee set up prior to the post office flap is looking for ways to honor Shirek. ''We're doing for Maudelle what the Republicans in Congress did not have the decency to do," said City Councilman Maxwell Anderson, who began his civic service in Berkeley in 1989 when he was appointed by Shirek to a post on the city's Planning Commission.

Coincidentally, Anderson defeated Shirek in last November's election, ending her 20-year career on the council representing South Berkeley. She was forced to run as a write-in candidate because of an administrative error that kept her name off the ballot.

Lee said she hasn't given up on having the post office renamed for Shirek, a two-year battle that involved persuading California Republicans to go along. When the matter finally reached the House floor last month, it was listed as a routine item that was expected to be rubber-stamped -- until the Iowa Republican pulled the item for debate.

''They've stepped on the wrong side of history," Anderson said of the congressional Republicans who rejected the measure, 215-190. Hoping for another vote soon, Anderson urged Republicans to ''wipe off their feet and take the steps to do what's right."

But Lee couldn't predict how quickly the matter can return for another hearing.

''She deserves to have this post office renamed after her," Lee said in an interview. ''There cannot be enough tributes to Maudelle Shirek in the city of Berkeley."

The US Postal Service, meanwhile, was staying clear of the controversy.

''It's not something we control at all. If a member of a particular state wants to name [a post office] after somebody, they have to go through Congress," said Jim Quirk, a spokesman for the US Postal Service in Washington. ''All we do, once it is signed into law, is schedule a ceremony."

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