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Congress Rejects Shirek Post Office Honor By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday September 30, 2005

In the wake of a 215-190 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives this week defeating a bill by Rep. Barbara Lee to rename the main Berkeley Post Office after former Berkeley Councilmember Maudelle Shirek, a spokesperson for Lee said that she has not given up on the idea. 

“She is looking into ways that this can be done,” said Nathan Britton, Lee’s spokesperson, from his Washington, D.C. office. “Congressmember Lee still would like to see the Berkeley Post Office named after Maudelle Shirek.” 

According to a recent article in The Hill, a newspaper “for and about the U.S. Congress,” most office-renaming bills are among the most routine in Congress, with “about one in eight public laws” devoted to the subject. The article added that “the practical effect of [such] legislation is less than might appear,” with only a plaque posted in the facility’s lobby, and the address listing for the post office remaining the same. 

The Shirek bill seemed headed for passage this fall after Lee won the support of Tom Davis (R-Virginia), chairperson of the Government Reform Committee, where the bill had been stalled since it was introduced two years ago. But after conservative Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa raised objections, the bill lost on a roll call vote. 

King, one of the more conservative members of Congress, told reporters that he objected to Shirek because of her support for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a man convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman, and because of her involvement with the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library in Oakland. He said that the Niebyl-Proctor connection gave her “an affiliation with the Communist Party,” and said that Shirek’s activities “sets her apart from ... the most consistent of American values.” 

In a prepared statement, Congresswoman Barbara Lee said that “Maudelle Shirek is a woman whose leadership, service and commitment to our community are a testament to what is great about our nation, and she deserves to be honored. That a Republican from Iowa could launch a campaign to deny naming a local post office after this 94-year-old civil rights leader ... is just shameful. 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.” 

Other Berkeley leaders agreed. 

Berkeley Councilmember Linda Maio called Congressman King’s actions “very insulting and out of step with America.”  

“If anyone exemplifies the term ‘woman warrior’ it is Maudelle,” Maio said. “She showed up all the time for important causes, with both her money and her time. She is an amazing woman. Denying her this honor flies in the face of the best American values, because Maudelle Shirek typifies those values. No matter who needed it, she was there to help.” 

Maio said that while the Berkeley City Council has no authority over the naming of the post office, “we do have authority over other things, and we should have a discussion about a permanent way to honor her,” possibly by naming some other public building in the city for Shirek. 

“Normally we don’t do that until someone passes away,” Maio said, “but this seems to be an appropriate time.” 

Max Anderson, who succeeded Shirek representing District 3 on the City Council, said his response echoed Lee’s. 

“It’s appalling that someone sitting in Iowa could be leading a floor fight against the honoring of a Berkeley individual who has been a longtime fighter for civil rights, peace, and social justice,” he said. “It appears that the old Cold War mentality is still prevalent among a lot of Republicans.” 

Anderson said he has been setting up a committee and holding a series of meetings to plan local honors for Shirek, including naming buildings after her and setting up a scholarship in her name. The councilmember said that plans are being developed for a fund-raising event on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, to raise money for a Maudelle Shirek Scholarship Fund. 

On Oct. 19, the South Berkeley Community Church will honor Shirek, a founding member, as part of its Capital Restoration Campaign program, celebrating the Fairview Street church’s legacy as the city’s first inter-racial church. The program will start at 7:30 p.m. 

Mayor Tom Bates was out of town and unavailable for comment. 

At the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library, formerly in Berkeley and now located in Oakland, a spokesperson said that workers at the library were sharing laughs about their newfound national notoriety, saying that “it’s incredible that Congress would revert back to the old McCarthy days.” 

Edith Laub, librarian and secretary treasurer of Niebyl-Proctor, said that Shirek’s involvement in the library was minimal. 

“When the library was started, we thought it would be helpful to sign up prominent individuals as sponsors,” she said. “Maudelle Shirek was approached, along with a large number of other persons who were known by the director at that time. She said it sounded like a fine idea, and she signed the form that was sent out to her. Sponsors were only asked to lend their names, and nothing else was required of them. That is the extent of her connection to the library.” 

Among the other sponsors listed on the library’s website are Berkeley attorney and author Ann Fagan Ginger, founder and executive director of the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, author and historian Howard Zinn, educator and radical activist Angela Davis, historian Herbert Aptheker, and longtime Southern civil rights worker Anne Braden. 

Meanwhile, Jackie DeBose of Berkeley, who is now executive director of the New Light senior lunch program which Shirek founded and still attends, took issue with a report in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle that Shirek was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. 

Calling that an “urban myth,” DeBose said “I don’t know where they got that information from. Nobody that I know of who knows Maudelle well thinks she has any symptoms of Alzheimer’s. I see Maudelle every day, and speak with her in depth. I took her to lunch today and we talked about the post office situation on the way there, and the possible U.S. Supreme Court nominations on the way back. There was nothing wrong with her memory. This is just an example of the fact that you can’t believe everything you read in the daily newspapers.” 

DeBose said that while Shirek has “health issues related to her age,” there is nothing to suggest Alzheimer’s. “I think this is just symptomatic of the belief that when we get old, something must be wrong,” she said. 

As for the post office snub, DeBose called that “business as usual” for the national Republican government. 

“I don’t know why people are so shocked and upset,” she said. “This is standard procedure for the Republicans. They are being consistent.” =