“I’m lucky for what my grandmother instilled in me: Don’t think you know it all, learn something new every day. I learned it by engaging with people and having an analysis, and understanding the integrated role that can be played by communities, universities, government, all kinds of people. We don’t live in a community that has reached its limit as to what’s best.”
Gus Newport, who passed away in June, was a warrior for social justice, equality, and peace who spent his life pushing local, national, and international communities to get closer to “best.” He was a two-term mayor of Berkeley, California, a friend and colleague of Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, Danny Glover, and Bernie Sanders, an honorary member of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, a member of the advisory board of the U.S. Conference on Apartheid, co-chair of the U.S. Peace Council, a vice president of the World Peace Council, and a master of community development in every sense of the term. He was also a friend of the Children’s Defense Fund and a beloved presence and leader in intergenerational dialogues at CDF’s annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry, where he will be missed by those gathering this week. He loved CDF’s Haley Farm and its spirit of allowing people to experience the beloved community Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned.
His commitment to change began in his hometown, Rochester, N.Y., where he became leader of the Monroe County Nonpartisan League civil rights organization in his 20s. Gus was helping defend nine Black Muslim worshipers who were arrested during a police raid on their Rochester mosque in 1961 when he met Malcolm X, who became a mentor and friend. He went on to help Malcolm X found the Organization of Afro-American Unity and last saw him in Harlem four days before was assassinated.
Within a few years Gus had moved to California, where he worked with community programs in the Berkeley city government before running for mayor in 1979. He was Berkeley’s second Black mayor, and his historic victory as the first successful candidate backed by the progressive Berkeley Citizens Action coalition helped set the tone for the city’s future. During his two terms he led Berkeley to become the first U.S. city to divest from South Africa and the first to provide domestic partner benefits for LGBTQ+ families, and he fought for rent control, affordable housing, police reform, child care benefits, environmental protections, and more. He also had the opportunity to network with other progressive mayors, including the then-mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who became a lifelong friend. Decades later Gus would be a supporter and surrogate for Senator Sanders in his Presidential campaign.
After Berkeley Gus continued working for change in communities across the country, from the successful Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood to rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and continued his passionate support of international social justice campaigns, which even as mayor had taken him from his anti-apartheid leadership to visiting war-torn El Salvador. And in recent years his dedication to intergenerational dialogue and mentoring was clear in one of our shared commitments: he was a beloved fellow member of the National Council of Elders.
Vincent Harding, James Lawson, Phil Lawson, Dolores Huerta, and Grace Lee Boggs convened the National Council of Elders to share what we’ve learned from 20th century civil rights movements with young leaders of the 21st century and promote the theory and practice of nonviolence. Members gathered in Greensboro, North Carolina in July 2012 to create a declaration of purpose, pledging to work with younger generations to do everything in our power to bring a greater measure of justice, equality, and peace to our country and world, and in 2020 issued a “Greensboro Declaration II” renewing that commitment. We were clear-eyed about how far we still have to go to create the national and world community based on peace, love, and mutual responsibility we have dreamed about and worked toward for so long, especially in a moment when white supremacy, intolerance, and bigotry are again on a dangerous rise. But we agreed “we are energized and hopeful as we collaborate with younger generations to create new lifeways and relations across the globe,” and we offered the second Declaration “as an encouragement to all people to join with us on the path toward that new world we still dream about. Together, we can overcome as we open our hearts to find ways toward loving communities.”
To put it another way, in Gus Newport’s words, we don’t believe we’ve reached our limit of what’s best. We do still believe, working together, that we will get there.