Book Review by Jo Freeman
The Education of a Black Radical: A Southern Civil Rights Activist’s Journey 1959-1964
by D’Army Bailey with Roger Easson
Foreword by Nikki Giovanni
Published by Louisiana State University Press, ©2009, 237 pp.
Colleges and universities were a major source of civil rights activists in the Sixties. Whether black or white, as long as they did their activism after leaving school, they were heralded as heroes. But if they were active while still students, even off-campus, they were troublemakers. This was particularly true for state supported schools. Legislators often wanted the schools they funded to keep their students off the streets. When campus administrators couldn’t control student activists, someone suffered.
Bailey writes about his "education" as an undergraduate in two very different schools. In 1959 he started at Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA, the largest predominantly black college in the country. In 1964 he graduated from Clark University in Massachusetts, where he had been given a special civil rights scholarship from money raised by Clark students after he was expelled from Southern. This book doesn’t detail his academic training (we don’t even learn his major), but his education into the real world of politics that made him into a "radical."
After a childhood ensconced in the black community of South Memphis, Bailey went to Southern with the ambition of being a student leader, but not necessarily a political leader. Elected freshman class president, he was swept into the civil rights movement by the force of current events. In the Spring of 1960, inspired by student sit-ins at segregated lunch-counters, Southern students began their own off campus protests. Several were jailed and expelled. On the surface things stayed quiet for over a year, but in December of 1961 Bailey found himself leading a march of Southern students to downtown Baton Rouge to protest the jailing of other students. This time he was one of those expelled.
Bailey was one of hundreds of students expelled from southern schools (and a few northern ones) as a result of off-campus civil rights activity, only a few of whom were fortunate enough to be given a free pass to finish their undergraduate education elsewhere. After getting over the culture shock of attending a well-equipped white university, he became something of a local personality, making speeches before churches and civic groups, organizing a local civil rights group, inviting national figures like Malcolm X to speak on campus. He details all of this as well as how these experiences affected his perceptions of whites and blacks, power and politics.
As I read Bailey’s book I couldn’t help but compare his experiences as a student protestor with mine and those of my predecessors at Berkeley. At both schools the nucleus of students who would demand change found each other in a classroom. They were moved to act by the civil rights protests of others and so were we. We (the students) both had the support of some, but not all, faculty, for what we did. We both thought our Presidents sold out to the establishment, though with hindsight, the University of California President (but not the Berkeley campus Chancellor) looks a lot better. Clark Kerr resisted legislative pressure to punish us for protesting and getting arrested off-campus; Felton G. Clark gave in to similar pressure and expelled Southern students for off-campus protest. (Of course, Kerr had Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown on his side; Clark didn’t have the support of any elected officials. Kerr was fired when Ronald Reagan became Governor; Clark kept his job until he retired in 1969).
A lot of civil rights history has not made it into the official records. The Baton Rouge protests are among them, as Bailey discovered when he was searching for photographs for this book. There was nothing about the civil rights activity of Southern students in the University archives. Nor did Southern’s protest tradition become part of collective memory, passed down through generations of students. It disappeared. This is tragic, because it is numerous local actions like these which give a movement breadth. Bailey was a sergeant if not exactly a foot soldier in the civil rights movement in two cities. Accounts like his are the building blocks of history. We should be grateful to him for telling us what happened at his two schools and their environs during the civil rights movement of the Sixties.
©2009 Jo Freeman for SeniorWomen.com