Willie Mae Kirk, a civil rights leader and teacher who fought against segregation in Austin, died Saturday at age 92.
A teacher for 32 years, Kirk championed equal opportunities for her students in East Austin and helped lead protests against segregation at Austin businesses, schools and Barton Springs Pool.
Kirk played an important role in Austin politics over the past five decades, beginning with efforts to repeal the poll tax and to register African-Americans to vote. Even late in life, she continued to speak out about how minorities were treated in Austin, particularly in the wake of police shootings.
The youngest of her four children, Ron Kirk, was elected Dallas mayor, ran for U.S. Senate and was later appointed the U.S. Trade Representative by President Barack Obama.
Wilhelmina Delco, a former legislator and the first African-American elected official in Travis County, said that Kirk understood that active engagement in politics was key to ending discrimination.
“That’s where we thought things had to change,” Delco said.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said that Kirk helped him launch his political career with a 1972 race for Texas Senate and that she had continued offering him advice through last year.
“Through the 40 years that I have been honored to know her, and before, her strength as a teacher and a leader for equal opportunity has made this a stronger and more just community,” Doggett said in a statement. “And through the example she set for her children, her reach has extended around the world.”
Last year, the city renamed an East Austin library in her honor.
“My first priority is my students,” Kirk said at the time. “Kids need to have a place where they can get any of the knowledge they need.”
Raised in Manor, Kirk attended college in Austin at what is now Huston-Tillotson University where she met her future husband, Lee Kirk. He became the first African-American postal clerk in Austin and died in 1982.
Willie Mae Kirk, known as Ankie to her friends and family, suffered a major stroke after undergoing a heart procedure last week. She died Saturday after several days at in-hospital hospice care at St. David’s Medical Center.
Details of her memorial service were not immediately known.