You're a leader. You've always been a leader," Will Ella Bailey recently said to her son D'Army. "You were chosen, and there was nothing you could've done about it."
Bailey, a lawyer and recently retired Circuit Court judge in Memphis, has a slightly different take on the matter.
"As I look back on my life," Bailey said in a phone interview with the Flyer, "what I did, the things I've done, did come naturally. But I didn't set out to be a leader of a protest movement, though I certainly took my share of initiative. My 'movement' involvement and my political involvement ... they were never objectives. They just happened. ... The times happened."
And so they did and do again in the pages of Bailey's autobiography, written with the assistance of Memphian Roger Easson and the first of three volumes planned: The Education of a Black Radical: A Southern Civil Rights Activist's Journey (Louisiana State University Press).
The "times" Bailey was referring to are these: the years 1959 to 1964 — pivotal times in America's civil rights movement. And Bailey was there, in the thick of it, first as a witness to events, then as an organizer of events. But Bailey, it's true, never set out to be a leader. These things, though, do happen.
As Bailey recounts, he grew up in a tightly knit and vibrant neighborhood in South Memphis. His father Walter worked as a Pullman porter. His mother eventually worked as a nurse, one of the first black nurses at St. Joseph Hospital. And like the neighborhood, Bailey's was a close-knit family — so close that "Papa" was the name Bailey used for his grandfather, who owned Bailey's Stand, a sundry store. The grandfather was D.A.: first name "Darmy," pronounced "Dee-army."
Bailey altered the spelling of his own name, and, yes, he was a student leader at Booker T. Washington High School. At the same time, he was learning to negotiate the terms of a segregated city beyond the boundaries of South Memphis.
But was Bailey a political firebrand by the time he enrolled at Southern University near Baton Rouge? Hardly, though as a teenager he kept up with civil rights issues as reported in national black newspapers and in Memphis' Tri-State Defender and Memphis World. He also observed first-hand Memphis' black movers and shakers in the campaigning Bailey did for candidates backed by the Memphis Shelby County Democratic Club.
Bailey's natural outgoingness served him well. He was elected freshman class president at Southern, but it was the student lunch-counter sit-ins in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, that galvanized him into taking personal action. It was professors at Southern too, such as Adolph Reed, who taught him to question America's power structures. And it was Bailey's protest activities at Southern that eventually got him expelled by the university's president, G. Felton Clark, an expulsion that luckily landed Bailey into the academic hands of another Clark: Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. (A town that Bailey learned not to pronounce "Wor-kester.")
Was the North what Bailey hoped it would be? Yes, in that he was surrounded by eager, questioning students. No, if he was too often questioned by the white, middle-class students at Clark as the embodiment of "Negro America."
What Bailey went on to discover in the great liberal North was even greater racial isolation than existed in the South. So Bailey did something about it: He invited Malcolm X to speak on campus, a highlight of Bailey's book. But Malcolm X isn't the first of the big names scattered throughout Bailey's memoir — look for activists at their earliest such as Tom Hayden, Barney Frank, and Abbie Hoffman.
How far does The Education take us? As far as the March on Washington (which Bailey described as "a grass-roots, mass-initiated mobilization" turned "media propaganda festival") and Bailey's departure for law school at Boston University, then Yale. Promised for volumes two and three of Bailey's autobiography: his career as a city councilman in Berkeley, California (years when he dealt with a man Bailey termed a "psychopath," Huey Newton) and Bailey's return to Memphis, a legal career, and his work to found the National Civil Rights Museum.
So: Stay tuned for future autobiographical installments on the life (and times) of D'Army Bailey. But for the time being, be at Burke's Book Store on October 22nd. That's when Bailey will be signing copies of The Education of a Black Radical.