As a smallish 210-pound offensive lineman at Southern University some 40 years ago, Walter Bailey once had to block a giant from arch rival Grambling named Ernie Ladd. Ladd, a future all-pro and professional wrestler, stood 6'9" and weighed over 300 pounds.
Bailey recalls his coach preparing him for the big game with that chestnut about how "the other guys put their pants on just like we do, one leg at a time."
True enough, but Ladd's pants were a lot bigger, and he flattened Bailey like a bug.
Even so, the gridiron advice stuck to Bailey long after he hung up his cleats and became a civil rights activist, courtroom lawyer, and Shelby County commissioner. Status be damned, he has always been game to take on a powerful moving force whether it be segregation, a courtroom adversary, popular sentiment for an NBA arena, or, most recently, rich and powerful people trying to take control of Shelby Farms.
Bailey still gets flattened now and then, but other times, he holds his ground and makes the block. So far, that's what he's done to Ron Terry, Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, and other proponents of the Shelby Farms conservancy plan. After initially being approved by the commission on a 9-2 vote, the plan to pump at least $20 million in private donations from individuals and foundations into the park is in limbo due to a surprising 6-4 reversal in June. Bailey was one of the two dissenters the first time and, in his carefully chosen words, "participated" in swaying enough of his colleagues to send the proposal back to the drawing board. The commission could take it up again as early as next week or later on in the next three months if, as expected, a deadline for commission action is pushed back from July to October and -- this part is less certain -- the state legislature signs off on a transfer of authority to the conservancy.
On both counts, Bailey is a man to reckon with. He has served on the commission and its forerunner since 1971, making him the longest continuously serving elected official in Memphis or Shelby County. In addition to longevity, Bailey has speaking skills honed in the courtroom and good relations with his colleagues.
A maverick who picks his spots, Bailey freely admits he tunes out issues that don't interest him and more or less rubber-stamps others. He can be a lonely champion of lost causes, good for a quote or a sound bite to give balance to a story, as he did in the arena fight where he played the gadfly to Pitt Hyde and the NBA Now crowd.
The Shelby Farms plan is different. It interests him a lot, though he is not a tree-hugger, a developer, or a park-user. There is no public uproar. No one's rights are at stake. No big building project is being proposed. Private interests are offering to give money for public use -- just the opposite of the Grizzlies and the arena. But the underlying issues go to the heart of Bailey's principles and hit a few of his personal hot buttons too.
"I am very jealously sensitive about public policy and property being in the domain of those who were not chosen to make decisions about it," he said in an interview at his home overlooking Martyr's Park on the South Bluff. "I would have been far friendlier to the foundation if it had been a diverse group of people. But control is commensurate with your pocketbook. The documents I have seen from the proposed conservancy have a list of exclusions of what they won't tolerate if they put up the money. It lists exclusions that are alien to their vision. That goes far beyond wanting to preserve the park."
The way the proposal was presented to the commission for action by July 1st bothers Bailey even more:
"The presumption is that if we don't freeze the use on the property, politicians down the road will compromise it. As a public officeholder, I find that very offensive. That's why there is a rush. Act now before the politicians do something alien to our vision. I am a Jeffersonian on democracy. Politicians are the real representatives of the people and reflect the will of the people rightly or wrongly. I am very much opposed to elitism."
Conservancy proponents find that a little precious. They say Bailey and other veteran civil rights activists know better than anyone how unjust and wrongheaded the established political order can be. But Bailey says the remedy is within the political process:
"Ron Terry could run for public office, but he chose to work behind, as I call it, an invisible government."
Terry, former chairman and CEO of First Tennessee National Corporation, got involved at the urging of Rout and has raised commitments for $20 million, including $500,000 of his own money.
Politics has been near and dear to Bailey his entire adult life. His younger brother is Judge D'Army Bailey, a former candidate for mayor of Memphis. His high school classmate at Booker T. Washington was Willie Herenton. And his closest colleague in his early years on the commission was Jesse Turner, a banker and NAACP leader.
Terry's involvement raises another festering issue for Bailey -- Memphis Country Club. Terry is a member of the exclusive club, which, according to members, recently admitted its first black member. Whether that caveat innoculates club members who seek to enter the public arena as judges or politicians remains to be seen. County mayoral candidate George Flinn is a member, but his opponent, A C Wharton, has not personally raised the issue, even though his associates have. To Bailey, any association with the country club smacks of elitism.
Could Bailey change his mind or compromise on Shelby Farms? Nothing, after all, is more political than that. It appears that he could, but only if the board is expanded to include more political appointees and the lease is shortened from the proposed 50 years.
"I don't have a problem with that kind of structure," he said.
Proponents do, however, so don't look for a deal, if there is one, until after the August county mayoral election and the installation of the new mayor and commissioners. Bailey will be there in any case and downplays dire predictions about the turnover:
"I have seen vacancies due to suicide and death and resignations for everything from going on to bigger and better things to going to jail. On balance, we have had good government and a very democratic process. That is all people can ask for -- a level playing field where their views can be heard."