‘Black radical’ shares what he learned during the civil rights movement

Saturday, October 10, 2009 at 12:04am

D’Army Bailey has spent a lifetime on the political battlefront, from his days in the Civil Rights Movement on through leading protests in Washington D.C. and Baltimore, and later serving as a Berkeley City Councilman and eventually a circuit court judge for 19 years in Memphis.

Newly retired, Bailey's new book, The Education of a Black Radical: A Southern Civil Rights Activist's Journey 1959-1964, (LSU) looks back on his early years when he joined other students at colleges and universities throughout the South challenging segregation and the region's established order.

"I wrote this book now because I think the current generation needs to know the lessons of the civil rights movement," Bailey, who appeared Saturday in the Legislative chambers as part of the Southern Festival of Books, said. "The people who began the sit-ins, as well as those in the Montgomery bus boycott and the various protest marches and demonstrations were those of modest means, but they were determined to challenge injustice and demand that things change.

"That type of energy and commitment and determination is needed today, to confront the problems of this generation and era, and I think that the message of that era is still very much meaningful and appropriate to what's happening today."

In 1960, only one month after four students in Greensboro, N.C., refused to leave a whites-only lunch counter, Bailey and his classmates began a similiar campaign in Baton Rouge, La.

As head of the freshman class there, Bailey was soon a familiar figure and also target of both police and campus officials at Southern Unversity (then and now America's largest HBCU) who were afraid that his efforts might trigger retaliation against the college. But that fear didn't stop Bailey and his comrades, whose campaign extended to the Greyhound bus station and other businesses in Baton Rouge that discriminated against black customers. His nonstop fight against segregation finally led to Bailey's expulsion from Southern.

But it didn't stop his desire for change, nor end his quest for education. He shifted to Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts and eventually became a significant leader in Northeastern civil rights activities. These included being part of the March on Washington, helping co-ordinate events in Baltimore, and becoming friends and allies with such individuals as Malcolm X, Abbie Hoffman, James Meredith, Tom Hayden, John Lewis and Rev. Will D. Campbell.

His meetings and encounters with them, along with various exploits and remembrances, are detailed throughout The Education of A Black Radical.

Bailey also earned his undergraduate degree from Clark University and a law degree from Yale. Before becoming a judge, he not only served as a city councilman in Berkeley, but founded the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King's assassination, in 1991. Even though he could have continued on the court for six more years, Bailey said it was time for him to step down and move on to something else.

"Neither the legal or the political system of this country by itself can do all the things necessary to ensure that people are treated fairly and have the opportunity for a good and just life," Bailey said. "Both of them are constrained by the laws that legislators pass and the biases that those involved in that process bring to it. It is the duty of those of us in society who understand this to work for progressive change against the margains. We must do it in a respectful and peaceful manner, but it is vital that we continue to work and ensure that injustices are corrected."

"I had to step down because as a judge you can do some things, but you are also under an obligation not to be partisan or socially active. Now that I'm retired, I'm going to be both partisan and involved. I'll spend some of my time working with a law firm that's very much involved in medical malpractice, personal injury and nursuing home issues. There are some legislators out there who forget about the people they're supposed to be representing and in some instances just sell them out. I wanted to get back out on the battlefront."

"The issues of today involve some of the same things that were there in the '60s, but there are also a lot of new challenges," Bailey concluded. "We've got to work for good schools and educational opportunities, solid family structures and economic opportunity. It's not enough just to get people elected to office, or even for an Obama to become President. The fight is about expanding options, providing jobs and ensuring that people can live in dignity and peace. It's not something that we can leave to the government or politicians. It's up to everyone to participate in fighting for progressive change in this country."