You might reasonably think the outrageous red-baiting of Sen. Joseph McCarthy that’s at the heart of the current film, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” is a relic of the fanatic anti-communism of the 1950s. But think again. Think of what was done just this fall in the House of Representatives.
GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa and 214 other House members, most of them also Republicans, stood four-square and firm-jawed for what they insisted were threats to our way of life posed by a bill that would name Berkeley’s main post office in honor of Maudelle Shirek, a 94-year-old African American activist.
Shirek, now suffering from Alzheimer’s, is a granddaughter of slaves who’s devoted her life to helping the poor and oppressed here and abroad. Among many other things, she’s been a union organizer; outspoken advocate for senior citizens, teachers and blue-collar workers; prominent anti-war protestor; member of peace delegations to other nations; mentor to several generations of political leaders and for 20 years a leading member of Berkeley’s City Council.
That would seem to be far more than enough to win congressional support for putting Maudelle Shirek’s name on a post office. Such requests, in any case, are rarely – if ever – refused. They typically sail through Congress unanimously with not a word of debate. All manner of politicians have been so honored, as have athletes, entertainers and other locally celebrated people. All that’s ever been needed is for the congressional representative from the area involved, in this case Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, to request the naming and it’s done, no questions asked.
But this time Rep. King and his band of latter-day cold warriors stepped in to save us from the great dangers they claimed to see in Rep. Lee’s request.
They called for a vote that defeated her bill 215-190.
Why, said Rep. King, Shirek does not truly represent “American values”
because she supports freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal, who many say was unjustly convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman in 1981. What’s more, she has “an affiliation with the Communist Party” because of her support for a small Marxist research library in Berkeley.
Shirek’s a bad woman, King told Lee – so bad he “would not want children to go by the post office and see that woman as a mentor and leader.”
Joe McCarthy would be proud, and proud, too, of the attempts by King and other Republican leaders to try to red-bait for political advantage the Democrats who voted for Lee’s bill.
Press releases sent by the National Republican Congressional Committee to media outlets in 45 districts that are expected to be hotly contested in next year’s Congressional elections carried a headline charging that incumbent Democrats voted “for naming U.S. post office after reputed communist.”
Carl Forti, a committee spokesman and apparently even more dedicated disciple of McCarthy, went further. No wishy-washy “reputed” for him. He asserted that the Democrats “voted to name a post office after a communist who is also in favor of cop killers.”
King was unfazed by Lee’s complaint that the GOP effort “is better suited to the era of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover than today’s House of Representatives.” He praised McCarthy as “a hero for America” and called Hoover, the former FBI director who’s widely condemned for violating the civil rights of many Americans, “a giant when it comes to law enforcement.”
King wants us to believe that he and his Republican friends are trying to save us yet again from the dread red menace. Barbara Lee knows better:
“These people are so desperate to change the subject from Tom DeLay’s indictment and their record of corruption and abuse of power that they will resurrect the ghost of Joe McCarthy and attack a 94-year-old African American woman whose health is failing.”
Berkeley’s City Council also knows better. It voted unanimously in December to put Shriek’s name on one of the city’s most prominent buildings, Old City Hall, a 96-year-old Beaux-Arts beauty. Never before has a Berkeley city building been named for a person.