Former Del. Ruth M. Kirk, a longtime community activist who represented West Baltimore’s 44th district in the Maryland General Assembly for nearly 30 years, died of heart failure June 17. She was 81.
Dubbed a “street-wise, tooth-and-nail politician” in her early years, Kirk advocated for “those who others had left behind,” according to U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who ran as a state delegate on the same ticket as Kirk in the early 1980s.
“She fought for those who were less fortunate, but whose causes were still right and just, with the heart of a servant and with the tenacity that forms the character of the city she so loved,” Cummings said in a written statement. “Baltimore is poorer … after losing Ruth, but we are also an infinitely better people for having known her and been witness to her passion.”
Kirk was born Feb. 2, 1930 in Baltimore. Bed-ridden because of a heart murmur, she only attended public schools through the ninth grade, but eventually earned a GED. “I’m self-taught,” she told the AFRO in a 1983 article. “I use to take my brothers’ and sisters’ books. I’d take tests by myself and they would help me.”
The experience helped shape who she became as an adult, she added. “I’m glad I got sick because if I had all those degrees, I wouldn’t be the same person. I’d rather for people to use me, than for me to use them.”
The deeply religious woman was a long-time member of Morning Star Baptist Church. In an AFRO feature story, she said she “made a covenant with God” that she “would serve him,” if he would carry her through her heart battles. Kirk recovered and worked various jobs, including as a teacher’s aide at Dunbar High School.
As a senator, she remained an advocate for quality education and spoke out against overpopulated classrooms and slim school supplies. “We’ve got the talent,” she said in a Sept. 7, 1985 AFRO article. “We’ve got good teachers and we’ve got good principals, but if they don’t have the materials to help motivate young minds, we’ll all be in trouble.”
For over 40 years, Kirk headed the city’s Urban Services Advisory Commission and was a member of a host of other boards, including the People’s Democratic Action Organization and the Self-Help Housing Board.
According to AFRO archives, she also helped establish the Greater Model Recreation Center in the early 1970s. “If you go out to the Urban Services or any people on the Westside and ask, ‘What do you think about that girl?’ They might say I’m crazy, but I follow through,’” she said in an interview.
Radio host Larry Young brought Kirk into politics, he said, when he asked her to co-chair his re-election campaign to the House of Delegates in 1978. Four years later, he and Kirk ran on the same ticket with Cummings and Clarence M. Mitchell, III.
“She was very much a neighborhood advocate,” Young recollects. “She represented the grassroots constituency."
Once elected in 1982, the Democrat continued to lobby for low- and moderate-income housing, child care, increased funding for homeless shelters and services for the elderly.
Down to earth and hardly pretentious, Kirk wasn’t afraid of the gritty, unglamorous aspects of her job.
“I can’t afford to ego trip because you’re asking a lot from them (the public),” she said in a 1980s interview. “You’re asking them to come out to your meetings at night. You must say to yourself, ‘I must go out and get these dollars for my people.’”
The AFRO awarded her a certificate of appreciation for her community service July 24, 1982, and she was inducted into the Association of Community Action Agencies Hall of Fame for 25 years of service in 1989.
In 1994, she was president of the Women Legislators of Maryland. She also was chair and treasurer of the budget committee and served on the board of directors for Meals on Wheels.
Kirk served in the state legislature for seven terms until she lost reelection last January. Her legislative and community advocacy career has left an impact, especially among political colleagues, who issued a flood of written statements lamenting her death.
Gov. Martin O’Malley praised Kirk’s commitment to improving communities in West Baltimore and vocalizing necessary services for senior citizens. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Kirk served with “honor, distinction and true grace,” and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said she left an “indelible mark on her beloved City of Baltimore.”
Kirk is survived by her husband of 52 years, Arthur F. Kirk Jr.; five of their seven children and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
At AFRO deadline, viewings were scheduled for June 22 and June 23, and a funeral June 24 at Morning Star Baptist Church of Christ.