Mrs. Somerville prayed everyday at noon for a better world, and believed that a combination of the prayers and hard work of the many who did the same helped to elect Barack Obama to the presidency. She attended Obama’s inauguration in January of 2009, with a group organized by Congressman Danny Davis. Though she was already 87 at the time, she rode the bus there and back, then walked the long distance from bus to Capitol building.
The origins of Mrs. Somerville’s activism were in the Contract Buyers’ League, and in the Westside Garfield Hospital, which later became Bethany. She worked with community leaders Mary Alice Henry and Danny K. Davis to win improvements at the hospital at first, but when she found she could be successful at winning change there, she was off and running.
At the age of 67, in 1988, after caring for her own dying mother for years at home, Mrs. Somerville embarked on a career in community organizing. She led the fight in Lawndale to stop the illegal dumping that had become common in that African American westside neighborhood. Long before “Silver Shovel” became the tag name for the federal corruption probe of city aldermen who allowed dumpers to pay for the privilege of creating an illegal mountain of construction debris in the North Lawndale area, Somerville could be seen leading groups of community residents as they called on city officials to enforce the law against the host of illegal dumpers who used vacant lots in the low income community to drop all manner of waste.
In 1994, Mrs. Somerville played a key role in a community effort led by political strategist Richard Barnett to topple the incumbent alderman. A community newspaper (the Austin Voice) recounts that the alderman got out of his car at one of Mrs. Somerville’s “Dump the dumps” rallies, intending to speak to the assembled voters. The chants changed from “Dump the dumps” to “Dump the Alderman,” and the alderman responded, in what he thought was an aside to Somerville, “Sit your old a… down.” She responded, “Not till I sit you down,” and he lost in the first round of city council elections early the next year. That Austin Voice article was the key lit piece in the campaign, and Lawndale seniors cast the deciding votes.
During the Savings and Loan Bailout in 1989 and 1990, Mrs. Somerville was arrested in the offices of the Resolution Trust Corporation, the agency set up to take ownership of any assets owned by bankrupt savings and loans, including foreclosed homes. Mrs. Somerville was leading a fight for the foreclosed houses to be made available to homeowners rather than absentee investors, and was arrested at an action in Elk Grove Village where protestors took the trash from the vacant homes to the offices of the government agency. Eventually, working families did get the first right to bid on those homes.
Mrs. Somerville was a wiling participant in civil disobedience activities, often saying that if a man as good as Martin Luther King could go to jail for justice, then anyone fighting for justice should be prepared to spend time there. She was arrested in Washington D.C. during the 90′s at protests for the Community Reinvestment Act, which provided solid loans to creditworthy homebuyers in African American and Latino neighborhoods. Representatives Maxine Washington and Joe Kennedy bailed her out and spoke in support of her at her trial. Her advocacy benefitted all of us, because after the predatory lending abuses of the next two decades, it was Community Reinvestment Act loans that provided the only stable ownership in a sea of foreclosures.
In January, 2003, when Mrs. Somerville was 81 years old, she volunteered to go to jail to assist another 81-year-old, Doris Rodgers, whose heat had been turned off. With temperatures outside approaching single digits, and President George W. Bush coming to town, Mrs. Somerville and a groups of community members went into the downtown offices of the Republican Party, refusing to leave until President Bush released emergency home heating funds that he had been sitting on. Somerville and three other women were arrested and filmed by TV news as they were put in the paddy wagon.
Doris Rodgers was too frail to go to jail that night, but she did attend the event, and invited WGN TV reporters to her home after the arrest, confirming in a live segment that, according to the Tom Skilling weather thermometer, it was 32 degrees inside the home where Doris Rodgers, a widow with no living children, was residing. Within a few days, Doris Rodgers’ heat was back on. Within a few weeks, Bush had released the emergency LIHEAP funds and in another few weeks, Congress had approved an increase in energy assistance funds for the next budget.
On her 85th birthday, July 26, 2006, Mahaley Somerville received a certificate from the Chicago City Council, signed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, for her longtime service to her
community. That was the day of the Chicago city council vote for the Big Box Living Wage, a surprise vote of 35 aldermen in favor of an ordinance that would raise big box store employees’ minimum wage to $10/hour plus health insurance. After the historic vote, hundreds of living wage campaigners exited the council chambers, singing Happy Birthday to Mrs. Somerville. Mayor Daley later vetoed the ordinance, but Mrs. Somerville was on hand for the celebration of the statewide increase in the minimum wage which followed. After his veto of the big box ordinance and before the February, 2007 mayoral election, Daley had used his influence in Springfield to win a statewide minimum wage increase. Somerville had campaigned for a raise for approximately 2000 big box store employees in Chicago. Instead she helped to win a raise that impacted more than a million low wage workers statewide, with an increase from $6.50/hour to $8.25/hour, over a number of years. Alderman Toni Foulkes, a labor and community activist at the time, worked with Mrs. Somerville on that campaign.
In May, 2009, Mrs. Somerville joined a hunger strike called by the Grassroots Collaborative to protest potential cuts in the state budget affecting education, childcare, elder homecare and healthcare. Even though she was 87 at the time, she maintained a juice and water diet for 3 days, until stopped by a doctor at the emergency room.
Mrs. Somerville was born to a small farm family in Artesia, Mississippi in 1921. She left Mississippi and came to Chicago in 1942 with her husband, finding work in a laundry for the railroads, where she worked for 28 years. She had 7 children, and many, many grandchildren and great grandchildren. The great tragedy of her life occurred when her 10 month-old baby boy, Robert Earle, was abducted in 1951. He was never found, and in those days she had trouble even getting some attention paid to the case. Even in her last year, her conversation and thoughts would often revert to her beloved missing child.
Mrs. Somerville died peacefully in her sleep in the early morning of Sunday, August 5, 2012. Her daughter, Maxine Somerville, a nurse by training who had dedicated herself to caring for her mother at home, brought her mother her morning coffee and found her in a state that appeared to be deep repose, with a peaceful expression on her countenance.
Mrs. Somerville received many awards over the years, in the form of certificates from the Cook County Board, the Chicago City Council, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Bobbie Wright Mental Health Center and Action Now. She was a brilliant grassroots strategist and tactician, with huge integrity permeating her tall, elegant figure.
Mrs. Mahaley Somerville was and is our mother. She guides us still.