Saturday, April 4, 2009

Longtime Madison Civil Rights Activist Lea Zeldin Remembered

Capital Times editor John Nichols has written a beautiful tribute to longtime Madison civil rights activist Lea Zeldin, who died this past Wednesday at the age of 80, subtitled “Proud to be a Radical….” He wrote, in part:

Zeldin didn't mind upsetting the establishment, and eventually even some of the powerbrokers in town came to recognize that she was right.

As tensions rose in Wisconsin cities in the late 1960s -- with open housing marches in Milwaukee and a takeover of the state Capitol by welfare-rights activists -- Zeldin's recognition of the reality that it was not just the south that had issues proved prescient.

Zeldin, the founder of Madison's Dr. Martin Luther King Free Community Dinners -- a perfect merging of her political and culinary concerns -- has died at age 80, after suffering a stroke last week....

Zeldin was with the activists. And she never thought the title "radical" was an insult.

While I don’t doubt that Lea had no trouble embracing the term, “radical,” I hope no one misinterprets this to mean that she was a person who lived on the fringes and was therefore somehow out of touch with reality. Because, instead, as a woman of great integrity and authenticity, she was almost always exactly where she needed to be.

I’ll remember fondly breaking bread together at a local media reform event at an intergenerational table of activists at the Dardanelles (see photo), where her sharp wit and incisive story-telling held us all enthralled. Part of the conversation revolved around local political leaders whom she believed had recently been taking the “politically pragmatic” path, rather than simply holding to their principles and doing the right thing. In a world where political spin and unprincipled compromise have too often taken hold, Lea had little patience for such an approach.

April 4th marks the 41st anniversary of Dr. King’s highly stirring and controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church. Lea lived out Dr. King’s messages—all of them--each and every day. Like Dr. King, Lea could be warmly supportive and an inspiring catalyst for the involvement of others in the cause of civil rights. But also like Dr. King, she challenged us to move beyond our comfort zones, asking us to end our self-imposed silences to speak out and take action against injustice—to simply do the right thing.

John Nichols's essay taught me a lot about Lea that I’d never known before, but one theme also stands out for me: the powerful things that happen when we break bread together, as we build relationships and share authentically with each other those things that really matter.