Don Jelinek, civil rights attorney and former Berkeley city council member, dies

Don JelenikDon Jelinek, a former Berkeley City Councilman, author, and a crusading lawyer who worked for civil rights in the South, represented the Native Americans who took over Alcatraz in 1969, and defended prisoners who survived the Attica Prison uprising, died June 24. He was 82.

Jelinek was one of Berkeley’s most visible progressive politicians, serving on the City Council as part of Berkeley Citizen’s Action coalition from 1984 to 1990. He ran for mayor against Shirley Dean twice, losing both times. In the first race in November 1994, Jelinek captured 49.2% of the vote against Dean’s 45.5%. That forced a runoff, which Dean won. Jelinek and his supporters blamed the loss on the December runoff date when most UC Berkeley students were out of town.

Even off the council, Jelinek exerted great influence in Berkeley politics. He was a frequent advisor to the five sitting BCA councilmembers, meeting with them frequently to strategize legislation, according to Kriss Worthington, who said he never would have run for election without Jelinek’s encouragement.

“Long after he left the council he was still an incredible resource,” said Worthington. “He combined common sense and progressive ideas to focus the loose knit coalition of progressive council members. He was a calm force for “Yes, do progressive things but do them in a smart way.”

The five progressives were Worthington, Maudelle Shirek, Margaret Breeland, Dona Spring and Linda Maio.

Jelinek was born Feb. 17, 1934 in the Bronx, the son of two Jewish immigrants, one from Russia and one from Czechoslovakia. He attended the Bronx High School of Science and New York University where he received both his B.A. and law degree.

“In 1955, Don moved to Greenwich Village where he lived in a tenement and paid his rent by working as a janitor—first taking in garbage cans then walking to his law school classes,” according to an obituary prepared by his family. “In the Village, for the first time in his life, Don met gay people, black people, local leftists and bohemians all of whom fueled his lifetime passion for politics, reading and theatre.”

Jelinek took a job as an attorney on Wall Street, but his life changed when he went down to Mississippi in 1965 to work with the ACLU for a three-week stint. At the end of that visit, he decided to stay behind and work with SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Jelinek remained in the South for three years and “he took on the overtly racist practices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and brought to light the shameful realities of rural malnutrition and starvation in America,” according to his family’s obituary. In the course of his legal work, he represented civil rights workers and black sharecroppers as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, H. “Rap” Brown and many organizations working for civil rights including SNCC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP.

Jelinek had asked that the inscription on his headstone read, “He was SNCC.”

Ironically, Jelinek’s participation in SNCC, one of the proudest episodes of his life, was used against him in his first mayoral campaign against Dean. Right before the 1994 election, someone circulated literature in Berkeley’s African-American neighborhoods suggesting there was no proof Jelinek had worked as a civil rights attorney in the South.

“That attack on Don Jelinek was one of the most vile lies in Berkeley politics,” said Worthington.

Jelenik moved to Berkeley in 1969 with his first wife, Estelle Jelinek. That marriage ended in divorce. He later married Jane Scherr, a union that lasted 30 years.

Jelinek continued his civil rights work in California. When a group of Native Americans seized Alcatraz in 1969 and lived there for 19 months, claiming the land under a 100-year old treaty, Jelinek moved to the island to assist them. He later defended 61 inmates who had been indicted for 1,400 felonies in connection with the Attica Prison uprising. None of them was convicted.

“He was one of the great civil rights lawyers of his time,” said Osha Neumann, an attorney with the Berkeley Community Law Project.

Jelinek then defended for free hundreds of flea market vendors who were ousted from the weekend Ashby BART parking lot. He got the vendors reinstated. That experience led him to run for City Council.

Jelinek was the author of three books, “Survivor of the Alamo,” about the Texas Revolution and one man who did not stay at the Alamo to die; “Attica Justice” about the history of prisons in America, the inhumane conditions that led to the uprising and his defense of the Attica prisoners; and “White Lawyer, Black Power” about his time in SNCC and the civil rights movement.

Jelinek is survived by Jane Scherr, his wife of 30 years; his younger brother Roger; Jane’s daughters Dove and Apollinaire and Don and Jane’s grandchildren Hannele and Pascal.

There will be a memorial service for Jelinek on Saturday, July 16, 2016, at 1:00 p.m. at St. Johns Presbyterian Church in Berkeley There will be a small reception after the service. In lieu of gifts, Jelinek asked that money be donated to “Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement” c/o Eugene Turitz, 2124 Derby Street, Berkeley 94705.

Read an oral history of Jelinek’s time working for civil rights in the South here.

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