Remembering Gus Newport, a Progressive Titan
Former Berkeley, California Mayor Gus Newport, a titan of progressive politics in the late 20th Century, social justice champion who worked with Malcolm X, and a lifelong humanitarian and internationalist, died June 17 in San Francisco. He was 88.
Gus was the embodiment of the adage of a life well lived. His record of accomplishments from civil rights activism to groundbreaking political initiatives to far-sighted community economic development programs to global solidarity and elder statesman leadership could fill volumes.
“The beauty of Gus,” said actor Danny Glover in an interview, “is that I trust him to elevate our story. When you spend time with someone with Gus’s history and character and listen to his stories, you are changed. I hope that a little of my story could resonate with others the way Gus’s stories have resonated with me and so many around the world.”
As a young activist in 1962, leading the Monroe County Nonpartisan League, the largest civil rights group in his hometown of Rochester, NY, Gus shepherded the first successful police brutality case in federal court after the beating of a Black gas station attendant Rufus Fairwell who would win a financial settlement from the city.
Daisy Bates, who led the NAACP campaign to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School in the late 1950s and now organizing in Rochester for the NAACP, introduced him to Malcolm X by phone. Gus and Malcolm worked to defend nine Black Muslims assaulted and arrested in a police raid on a Black Muslim Mosque in Rochester during a worship service.
When Malcolm flew into Rochester, and landed on the tarmac on a cold February day, Gus was waiting in the airport surrounded “by a lot of white men in felt hats and white shirts and ties. When Malcolm walked in and asked, ‘who is Gus Newport.’ I raised my hand and said, “I am.” He said, “Young blood, you got the best-tapped telephone in America. This is all FBI around you.”
He would go on to count Malcolm and Harlem Congress member Adam Clayton Powell as mentors. He assisted Malcolm in founding his Organization of Afro American Unity (OAAU).
In February 1965, after Malcolm’s house was firebombed, Malcolm asked him to join him for a speech in Rochester about his situation. Returning to New York, “when we landed at LaGuardia, we were met by the chief of police of New York and the fire marshal. They accused him of firebombing his own home.” Four days later Malcolm was assassinated. Later Gus would help Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz with burial and financial support, including with a fundraiser for the family headlined by Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Max Roach at the home of Sidney Poitier.
Gus would move west after leaving a Department of Labor stint assigned to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, due to a distaste for the politics of President Nixon. A cousin helped him get work for the city of Berkeley, developing youth employment service programs and as a senior analyst in the City Manager’s office and Parks and Recreation department.
In 1979, Gus was elected Berkeley Mayor, with the backing of the progressive Berkeley Citizens Action coalition on a platform of community economic control, serving two terms until 1986. “I never aspired to run for mayor,” he would relate. “I was talked into it by John George, the first African American elected to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and Congressman Ron Dellums. Danny Glover (who met Gus while interning with the city of Berkeley) and Harry Belafonte (who he had known in New York) helped with my campaigns.”
As Mayor, Gus would lead Berkeley to become the first city in the U.S. to divest from apartheid South Africa, the first city to create a domestic partner benefits program for LGBTQ+ families, a child care initiative to help working women, and innovative programs on affordable housing, rent control, policing reforms, environmental protections, and community development. Berkeley landlords sued to block limits on rent increases the city had enacted. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where Berkeley was represented pro bono by famed Constitutional attorney Lawrence Tribe, “and we won.”
He was one of the first mayors in the country to ride in a Gay Freedom Day parade, in San Francisco in 1979. He also challenged U.S. immigration policy. “The wars in Central America were creating thousands of refugees,” he says, “and I gave orders to our police not to arrest immigrants because of their status.”
As a result of Berkeley and Gus’ prominent role in the broad anti-apartheid movement, he was made an honorary member of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and served on the advisory board of the US Conference on Apartheid.
When Mandela first toured the U.S. after his release from prison, Gus was invited to help host Mandela on his visit to Boston, and Glover and Belafonte “introduced me to Mandela.” Gus had worked in Boston after leaving Berkeley as the first senior fellow at the newly founded William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts.
Gus spent years helping other municipalities on community development projects including in Boston, Seattle, Palm Beach FL, New Hampshire. The Boston area Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, in Roxbury, was a particular success, the only non-profit organization in the U.S. to receive the powers of eminent domain which became a national model for empowering a diverse community and sustainable change profiled in two award-winning films: Holding Ground and Gaining Ground.
He would also serve on the five-person advisory body to oversee the planning to rebuild New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and teach at Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2009, he gave the commencement speech at Heidelberg University at his alma mater in Tiffin, OH and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters.
Global peace and social justice was a life long focus for Gus. He was co-chair of the U.S. Peace Council and vice president of the World Peace Council and worked in solidarity with people’s movements, in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.
He was outspoken in opposition to U.S. policies in Haiti, Cuba, and Central America. In 1985, as mayor, he visited El Salvador, along with a Jesuit priest, with representatives of New El Salvador Today, a group he helped found. “The priest drove us to Chalatenango, and we were told we would walk for an hour, but it took us six hours! When we arrived, the village had no electricity and many roofs were torn off from bombing, but they managed to create a huge sign: ‘Welcome to the Mayor of Berkeley’.”
He was also a prominent supporter of Palestinian rights, as a long time board member of the Berkeley-based Middle East Children’s Alliance. In 2019 Gus was awarded the Khalil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Award by the Arab American Institute.
During the 2016 election, Gus and Danny Glover traveled across the U.S. as national surrogates for the Presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Gus had developed a friendship with Sanders after Bernie was elected mayor of Burlington, VT in 1981. They also collaborated with the few other progressive mayors, including Chicago’s Harold Washington, at U.S. Conference of Mayors meetings. “We’d compare notes on public policy, community planning, and organizing.”
In his later years, Gus served on the leadership committee of the National Council of Elders, an organization of people over 65 dedicated to advancing civil, women’s, environmental, farm workers, and LGBTQ+ rights.
Gus maintained a connection to Oakland and the East Bay, from the early 1990s living on and off in Oakland with his longtime wife and partner Kathryn Kasch. He was on the board of the Urban Studies Council, a Bay Area regional policy and research organization, focused on addressing inequities. In one of his last roles, Gus served on Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, formed after the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Asked what kept him working for a better world in the face of so many threats from white supremacy and assaults on democracy, Gus would say he was guided by Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a Beloved Community of inclusion, cooperation and justice for all which he had first imbued from his parents and grandmother. “We need to come back to what Martin called Building the Beloved Community — helping communities address education, incarceration, mental and physical health in an integrated and systematic way. If we want a better future for the next generation, we need to build a movement that is strategic and constant!”
In interviews he frequently talked about the inspiration of his grandmother who took him to concerts with Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson when he was five. “My grandmother grew up in the Jim Crow South,” he noted. “One day, after picking cotton, she came to school late and the teacher slapped her. She walked out and never went back.”
“I’m lucky enough 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.”
To hear Gus in his own words, watch a 2021 interview with the Berkeley Historical Society and Museum.
Chuck Idelson is the Communications Senior Strategist for National Nurses United, the nation's largest union and professional organization of registered nurses with 175,000 members.