BERKELEY -- On the second floor of the building that bears her name, inside the City Council chamber where the woman known as the "conscience of the council" served eight terms, an overflow crowd of friends and family celebrated the life of former Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek on April 30. Shirek died April 11 at 101 years old.
Friends and family shared familiar stories -- how Shirek came to run for City Council after her political enemies got her dismissed for being too old, at 71, from her job as West Berkeley Senior Center director; how she got arrested demonstrating against apartheid and fighting to keep the Highland Hospital AIDS/HIV ward open; how she worked tirelessly for low income housing.
Shirek was praised for working as hard behind the scenes as on the council dais.
"A lot of us talk about doing stuff -- voting to make it happen," Mayor Tom Bates said. "But Maudelle not only voted to make (healthy meals for seniors) happen, she actually cooked the food; she actually served the food. She set a standard for us here."
Former Mayor Gus Newport praised Shirek's "absolute commitment" to social justice. That included speaking out for the disenfranchised, as well as getting Newport up on a Sunday morning to visit seniors.
"She'd have me on my knees, five, six hours scrubbing floors," he recalled.
Shirek's nephew, Ronald Bridgeforth, told a story about his aunt, then Maudelle Miller, as a young teacher in the mid-1930s, working in a one-room schoolhouse in Jefferson County, Ark.
Her black students walked to the schoolhouse, while white children rode the bus to their school. The bus driver regularly slowed down to allow the white children to taunt and spit on the black children, he said. One day, one of Shirek's students fought back, hitting the bus with a tree branch that struck a white child.
When a constable came to arrest the student, Miller (Shirek) told the officer she had taught the children to fight back. "Without hesitation, she told him, 'If you want to take somebody, take me,'" Bridgeforth said, adding that the constable "beat a hasty retreat."
Music from South Africa by the Vukani Mawethu Choir underscored Shirek's fight for justice; a song from her nephew Eddie Boatwright celebrated her spirituality.
Rep. Barbara Lee, sporting a campaign T-shirt with Shirek's picture on the front and names of opponents she'd defeated in elections on the back, praised her friend and mentor.
"There's no way that I'd be a member of Congress had it not been for Maudelle," an emotional Lee said. "Just know, every vote I cast, I say, 'What would Maudelle do?'"
As a woman, an African American and granddaughter of slaves, "who else could help us understand how to fight for freedom and justice?" Lee asked.
The congresswoman read from her tribute to Shirek Lee had entered into the Congressional Record: "I believe, like many, that 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 to stand up for justice, both here in America and around the globe."
The community can share memories of Shirek at: http://maudelle-miller-s.forevermissed.com.