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Local activist, Alice Hamburg, dies at 95

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Wednesday November 14, 2001

To those who knew her, the name Alice Sachs Hamburg is synonymous with both peace and activism. 

The 95-year-old activist who raised three children, fought against above-ground nuclear testing, racism, the Vietnam War and more recently went to battle for the survival of KPFA radio, died Monday morning in her Berkeley home. 

“She was always an inspiration,” said fellow activist Eleanor Salkind, “Everyone looked up to her.” 

Alice Sachs was born Nov. 25, 1905 to Russian immigrant parents in Wilton Coal Mining Company Hospital in North Dakota. 

She describes her childhood home in “Grass Roots: from Prairie to Politics,” – a Creative Arts Book Company autobiography to be released in about two weeks: “The wind, rain and snow blew in, but it was a shelter. The eerie howl of the coyote disturbed our nights. My mother, new to the prairie, was terrified.” 

Life was hard. The soil her father farmed, while working in the mines, was rocky and barren. But she recalled the good times when people in the community would gather to work together at harvest time. 

“Kinship in this pioneer village transcended culture or religion. People from different parts of the world were brought together in this tiny place, united by common hardships,” she wrote. 

Hamburg’s young life was spent in a number of cities and towns, as her father tried his hand at various jobs, including plumbing and the dry goods business, but it seemed to Hamburg that his heart was always in farming. 

The moves led her Jewish family to towns that had never before met Jews and to experience some anti-Semitism in the form of teasing. 

While going to school, Alice began her work life at the age of 12. She was a live-in helper for one family, and cleaned house for another. 

By the time she was in high school, Alice’s family had moved to Aberdeen, South Dekota, where she worked part time in her father’s store, which had “new technology” – a telephone. 

In 1924 the family headed west to California and settled in Fresno, where she met her husband-to-be and got an early taste of what she would experience later as McCarthyism. Several women from the synagogue the family belonged to approached Alice’s mother and said: “You have a nice daughter and we understand she’s seeing Sam Hamburg. Be careful, he’s a Communist.” 

A few years later, when she was a student at UCLA, and had not yet married Sam, Alice took a class from an “inspiring” economics professor. She was disturbed when his contract was not renewed because of suspected “left-wing” leanings. 

In 1926 Alice married Sam Hamburg and lived for a while on a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley – first in a tent, then in a cookhouse. She soon moved on her own to Berkeley to continue her education, commuting by train to the ranch on holidays. 

After graduating with honors in economics, Hamburg went back to the ranch and taught migrant laborer children, then went on, for a time, to other teaching positions. 

“I lost my teaching job in 1932 because the trustees believed that married women should be supported by their husbands,” she writes. She adds that she “may have been a bit too outspoken in some of the discussion groups held outside of class, in which taboo topics such as birth control were brought up.” 

With twin girls about nine years old and a boy in kindergarten, Alice moved back to Berkeley, where, except for a stint in San Francisco, she would live out the rest of her long life. She took her activism to the local PTA, which took up the issue of integration. Berkeley hired its first black teacher in 1943 and instituted voluntary bussing in 1945. 

“By the late 40s, the country is in the grips of anti-Communist fervor,” Hamburg writes. In 1949, the California legislature passed the law that would make all state employees sign a loyalty oath and Hamburg helped found the Citizens’ Committee Against the Loyalty Oath. 

These meetings were also cited in an FBI report, which Hamburg quotes in her book: “In the 1940s she had been among sponsors of receptions held in honor of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and other well-known communists.” 

Hamburg got in trouble another time for supporting Robeson. At the height of his fame, the Berkeley Board of Education refused to let him perform in the newly-completed Community Theater, but because of a protest which Hamburg and others led, the concert went ahead as planned. 

In 1950, Hamburg joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, in which she would be active the rest of her life. 

On Sept. 11, 1951, she received a subpoena to appear before the State Un-American Activities Committee and was questioned about her activities around her support for Robeson and the Hollywood Ten. She responded to the committee, calling their questioning “a flagrant violation of the democratic principles which are the very foundation of our great American heritage.” 

Following her appearance before the committee, Hamburg was asked to resign from the Garfield PTA. She refused. 

Hamburg was both a mom and a political activist, said one of Alice’s daughters, Tanya Goldsmith, in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It was a precursor to feminism – she did both,” said Goldsmith, who lives in Berkeley. “She did not stay at home and make brownies.” 

Much of Hamburg’s political activity was generated through WILPF, and later, Women Strike for Peace, a sister organization. Hamburg protested against atmospheric nuclear testing; she protested at Berkeley’s Public Health Department against the growing levels of Strontium 90 in the local dairy supply; she rallied against the growing dependence of the California economy on war-related industry. Later Hamburg marched against the Vietnam War and helped the anti-war effort add civil rights to its agenda. 

Her friend and fellow activist, Margot Smith, calls Hamburg a role model. “All of us elders look to her and say we’d like to be like her at her age.” 

Among the most important things she would do – and continued to do up until about a year ago – was to write “Alice Hamburg’s review of legislation.” She would collect various opinions on candidates and ballot measures, condense the issues and give the opinion of various groups on each item. 

Another Berkeley activist, Eleanor Salkind said Hamburg talked about the large bag Hamburg always carried with her, containing notices of meetings and community events “so we knew what was going on.” 

“She was always an inspiration,” Salkind said. 

Hamburg’s efforts never seemed to flag. “She never took a nap, a vacation. She used every waking moment and never lost her grasp on what was important to her,” said her daughter Tanya Goldsmith. 

That spirit continued unabated. She was working to endow the Ron Dellums chair at UC Berkeley’s Peace and Conflict Department. She even went with her friend, Madeline Duckles, to a forum last week at the university on the state of nuclear weapons after Sept. 11. “At the very end, she was interested in everything going on,” Duckles said. 

The situation at KPFA radio and the community’s attempts to democratize Pacifica radio were among her activities until her last days. 

“In my fifty years of involvement with the station, I have seen turmoil unleashed time and again. Free speech is still under siege,” she wrote. “What is happening in Berkeley and the Bay Area gives some reassurance that democracy is not dead. Power is still in the hands of the people.” 


Note from the reporter: On Nov. 6, Alice Hamburg wrote me a note that I saw only on Tuesday. In part, it said: “Dear Judith Scherr, I hope you have had time to read my autobiography. Finally, Creative Arts tells me the book will be out in about one week.” In fact, I had held on to the book - “Grass roots from prairie to politics” for months, only reading it this past week, when I took a few days off from the Planet. This obituary is based mostly on that book. Sorry I took so long, Alice. Judith Scherr