Book review of 'The Education of a Black Radical' by D'Army Bailey with Roger Easson

By Michael A. Fletcher
Sunday, January 3, 2010


A Southern Civil Rights Activist's Journey, 1959-1964

By D'Army Bailey with Roger Easson

Louisiana State Univ. 237 pp. $28

The age of Obama has touched off all kinds of talk about the country entering a post-racial period, or at least an era when the impact of race has unquestionably declined. That is how it should be, because the nation's racial progress, while no doubt uneven, is also undeniable. But the treacherous road that has brought us to this milestone also should not be forgotten.

That is part of what D'Army Bailey tries to ensure with his memoir, "The Education of a Black Radical." Bailey offers a personal story of his life as a cog in what we have come to know as the civil rights movement. His book isn't a tour of the familiar triumphs and tragedies in places like Greensboro, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Little Rock. Instead, it is the tale of lesser-known battles that made the movement a movement. It is also a revealing story of one man's awakening to the call of his times.

Bailey is one of the many foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. He recently retired as a judge on a state court in Memphis and was the founder of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. For many years, he was active in the National Bar Association, the country's premier organization for African American lawyers and judges. But as a college student, this establishment figure qualified as a bona fide radical, simply because he dared to get involved in protests to desegregate his college town, launching him on a lifetime of activism. He was a reluctant student leader at Southern University in Baton Rouge, one of the nation's proudest historically black universities. Like hundreds of other students on such campuses across the South, he was expelled for his activism. He was saved by a scholarship to a school he had never heard of, located in a city whose name he could not pronounce: Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where student leaders had launched a scholarship fund to benefit activists who faced expulsion.

The most extraordinary thing about Bailey's story is its ordinary beginnings. He was raised in a segregated but comfortable neighborhood in Memphis, which many African Americans sardonically called the largest city in Mississippi. Despite the harshness that moniker suggests, Bailey led a life that was upper-middle-class by the standards of the segregated South. His father was a Pullman porter; his mother was a housekeeper who eventually became a nurse, and his grandfather a contractor, storeowner and all-around entrepreneur. Growing up, Bailey listened to rhythm and-blues music, admired the style of the neighborhood sharpies and had his eye on the cute girls.

But, inexorably, the painful realities of American apartheid enveloped his life. First, it was through the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and the Atlanta Daily World, the black newspapers that closely chronicled the nation's civil rights struggle. Soon enough, the black struggle became his struggle. As a student at Southern, Bailey found his voice as a leader and tried to address the outrage he felt toward the segregation that defined his life.

Bailey makes clear that not all African Americans heard the same call he did. In his telling, the black administrators and much of the faculty enabled segregation, content not to rock their quiet corner of the world. Under pressure from white political leaders, the school discouraged student activists and did not hesitate to expel and otherwise impede those who ignored their warnings. It is an honest, cringe-inducing piece of history that often goes unacknowledged.

After his undergraduate days, Bailey went on to be a stellar student and lifelong activist. He graduated from Yale Law School, practiced law in San Francisco. He served a controversial two years on the Berkeley, Calif., city council before being recalled by voters after his brand of black nationalist politics prompted charges that he led wild outbursts at council meetings and advocated racism. Eventually, he returned to his native Memphis, where he practiced law and emerged as a prominent community leader before winning election to the bench, where he served before returning to private practice.

Unfortunately, much of that story is not chronicled in this book. Bailey is saving those experiences for two future volumes of his memoirs, which may or may not be a good idea. This inside look at his student activism would have been even more valuable had he written about his whole career, explaining how his passions have evolved with the times, and how they shaped his view of a nation now led by a black president.

Michael A. Fletcher is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post and co-author of "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas."

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