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Obituaries

Alice Hamburg, 96; Activist Began Women's Peace Group

November 19, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alice Sachs Hamburg, who stood up to the California Un-American Activities Committee half a century ago, campaigned for peace throughout her life, and in her final weeks was organizing protests against the war in Afghanistan, has died. She was 96.

Hamburg, who founded Women Strike for Peace in 1950, died Nov. 12 in her Berkeley home of natural causes.

"Our motto is justice, not vengeance," Hamburg said during her recent efforts, repeating a mantra she had used during so many other conflicts. "Let us not become the evil we deplore."

In 1951, the sometime schoolteacher was subpoenaed before the California Senate's Fact Finding Committee on Un-American Activities--known as the Burns Committee--which was then interrogating people in San Francisco's City Hall.

What brought Hamburg under the senators' microscope was her position as recording secretary for the East Bay Council for Arts, Sciences and Professions, which had hosted a reception attended by purported communist singer-actor Paul Robeson. With guests like that, legislators figured, the arts council had to be involved in subversive activity.

Unbowed, Hamburg told the committee that the proceedings "constitute a flagrant violation of all the democratic principles which are our great American heritage."

If the committee hoped to bully her into returning to her classroom or her kitchen, the effort backfired.

"It was a troubling time," Hamburg said two years ago, explaining how the experience fired her up to work for peace and civil rights. "It was not easy to take these stands. But . . . I felt that I owed something to society. After the hearings, I realized the injustice of it, and I became much more dedicated."

With her international Women Strike for Peace, Hamburg arranged exchanges with women in the Soviet Union and peace groups in India, Japan and other nations.

One of Hamburg's first campaigns, after moving to Berkeley in 1948, was working for racial integration of Bay Area schools.

In the 1960s, she was actively involved in Berkeley's Free Speech Movement and in marches and protests for civil rights in the South, including the Mississippi Summer campaign of 1964.

She opposed the war in Vietnam, leading protests and counseling young men on avoiding the draft. She also opposed armed conflicts in Nicaragua and the Middle East.

"Wherever my government is involved, that's where I am concerned," Hamburg said in 1997 when she was given the Tribute Award by the Jane Addams Peace Assn. on its 50th anniversary.

Her international activism, Hamburg added then, was prompted by her "interest in any place in the world where there is oppression."

"I am opposed," she said, "to all who are pushing for military solutions to the world's problems, and I look at these issues from a universal point of view."

Hamburg's peace efforts encompassed passionate campaigns against nuclear weapons. In 1987, she coordinated a Mother's Day protest at a Nevada nuclear test site and personally "trespassed" to express her opposition.

In 1994, she expressed her feelings in a letter to the San Francisco Examiner, praising a series of articles headlined "War Games: Testing the nuclear future" by Keay Davidson.

"Many of us had hoped that with the end of the 'Soviet Threat' and the imminent signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," she wrote as she approached 90, "we could put aside our fears of a nuclear holocaust. We longed for the much-delayed peace 'dividends' to repair our infrastructure, upgrade our educational institutions, house the homeless, train our youth and in general restore our position as a world leader.

"Testing nuclear bombs, no matter how it is accomplished," she continued, "means greater threat to the environment, more proliferation, more pollution and more billions wasted."

A familiar voice in the Bay Area for more than five decades, Hamburg was once saluted by late San Francisco columnist Herb Caen after one of her typical tirades: "As usual . . . Alice made nothing but sense and enlightenment."

Born to poor Jewish immigrants on a North Dakota homestead, Alice Sachs moved to the Bay Area to study economics at UC Berkeley. After her 1927 graduation, she married rancher Sam Hamburg, who pioneered large-scale industrial farming in Merced County and cotton growing in Israel.

She taught school in the farming community of Dos Palos in the San Joaquin Valley before moving to Berkeley.

Her farming-to-urban activism background provided the title for Hamburg's autobiography, to be published Dec. 1, "Grass Roots: From Prairie to Politics."

In addition to the Jane Addams Peace award, Hamburg was honored by the Commission on the Status of Women, the Berkeley Community Fund and the American Friends Service Committee.

Much of her dedication to peace activism, she often said, was prompted by her responsibility as a mother.

Hamburg, who outlived her son, Aron, is survived by twin daughters, Tanya Goldsmith of San Francisco and Sonya Ruehl of Orinda, Calif.; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be sent to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 2303 Ellsworth, Berkeley, CA 94704.

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