University faculty member helps shape modern civil rights


Lily Katz

Sunny Ture, co-organizer of Black Students for Revolution, rallies students to march down Green Street on October 24, 2016.

By Abby Paeth, Assistant Features Editor

On the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, over 100,000 people followed King’s casket for a three and a half mile procession from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King preached, to Morehouse College, King’s alma mater.

Standing about 15 rows behind King’s casket, with tears rolling down his cheeks in mourning, was Ronald Bailey, who is now the department head of the African-American studies program at the University.

Later that night, Bailey, who was at the time a student at Michigan State University, sat in a hotel room with several leaders of the civil rights movement. Leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and Ernest Green all gathered together, wondering how the movement would progress after the death of one of their most iconic activists, King.

“I was there at the funeral, and I sat and listened to the speech and just had to stop and reflect on how powerful that experience was,” Bailey said. “I don’t spend a lot of time generally reminiscing about the past, but I was really moved by that.”

Bailey was born in Claxton, Georgia, in May 1948. While the south was very segregated at the time, Bailey said he recalls growing up in a “very warm and nurturing environment” with college-educated parents who were also active in the civil rights movement.

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In 1965, Bailey graduated from Evans County High School and went on to pursue his undergraduate degree in cross-cultural studies at Michigan State University. Bailey was originally expected to attend Morehouse College, where King attended, but decided to take a different path and go to school in the north.

“Atlanta was about 250 miles away, and I just considered that too close to Claxton. My parents would be up all the time. So I started to apply to Howard (University), which is a historically black college in D.C., but decided that Michigan State was where I wanted to go. I think that’s the one application that I filled out,” Bailey said.

Bailey, who had grown up thinking he would pursue a career in science, found himself drawn to an entirely different occupation as he became more immersed in black power during his time as a student at Michigan State.

“I can’t see myself being in a lab, in a white coat with the world burning. With the chaos in society I decided that I would pursue another course and ended up going to Stanford (University) for political science and getting a Ph.D. in black studies,” Bailey said.

Eventually, Bailey became the first person in the United States to earn a degree in black studies at the graduate level.

It was at Stanford that Bailey became acquainted with Faye Harrison, who is now a professor in anthropology and African-American studies at the University.

Although Bailey was several years ahead of Harrison in school, the two shared the same professor and mentor — St. Clair Drake.

St. Clair Drake was an African-American anthropologist and sociologist who helped found the African-American studies program at Stanford University and was an inspiration to both Bailey and Harrison.

Harrison said during her years at Stanford, Bailey was well known across campus for being an integral part of the African-American studies program.

“He was legendary because the people that I came to know and respect knew him, and he was part of the conversation very often,” Harrison said.

While the two attended the same school and shared a mentor, they didn’t officially become co-workers until about three years ago when Bailey asked Harrison to apply for an open position in the African-American studies department at the University.

Two and a half years later, Harrison’s line of work is 75 percent in the department of African American studies and 25 percent in the department of anthropology.

“When I need advice or feedback, I’m more inclined to go to (Bailey) than the head of the anthropology department simply because I know him better and I trust his instincts,” Harrison said. “I’ve learned a lot about how things work and possibilities for change from him because of his good citizenship with the University.”

Bailey started his career at Fisk University and then moved to institutions such as Cornell University, Northwestern University, the University of Mississippi, Northeastern University and finally the University of Illinois.

Bailey said many of the predominantly white institutions he has taught at are all about the same in terms of racial issues. He said once he starts a new job at a university, he researches what he can contribute to the betterment of the community and tries to help resolve the racial divides on campus.

“I think part of the problem we are having with race relations in the country is that there are so many people who have not walked in the shoes of other people, who don’t understand the details and the centrality of the experience of ethnic groups throughout U.S. and world history,” Bailey said.

To help resolve the racial divides on the University campus, Bailey chaired a committee whose main goal was to add a U.S. minority general education requirement for all students at the University.

The Committee on Race and Ethnicity — CORE — proposed this requirement to help educate students on minorities and challenge them to engage in open dialogue about racial issues.

Anita Mixon, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, initially had Bailey as a professor in 2014, and today Bailey is on her dissertation committee.

Mixon was a member of the student senate, which approved CORE’s proposal and helped push the proposal up to the academic senate. CORE’s proposal was eventually approved by the University and will take effect in 2018.

“My hope is that we don’t have a requirement to take these kind of courses, that students will see the value in learning about others without it being mandated,” Mixon said.

Ronald Oliver, junior in education, said he feels the general education requirement is the first step to bridging the racial gap on the campus.

Oliver is currently enrolled in an Asian-American studies course and said it has helped him become aware of the presence of other cultures on campus. He said it’s important for students to learn about different cultures because many of those cultures are represented on campus.

“I know a lot of people say this, but education is so important. (The new requirement) would definitely open up a lot of people’s minds,” Oliver said. “I feel like that has opened my eyes. Just educating yourself and learning there are other races out there besides your own.”

In March 2016, Oliver and Bailey, along with about 50 other University students and faculty members, embarked on a seven-day civil rights pilgrimage which started in Charleston, South Carolina, and ended in Memphis, Tennessee.

Nia Gipson, sophomore in agricultural and consumer economics at the University, also attended the pilgrimage and said it was a very powerful experience for her.

For Gipson, one of the most overwhelming moments on the trip was when they stopped to visit Greensboro, North Carolina, at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. At the museum, visitors are allowed to sit at the original countertop of the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins and go through a simulation that gives people an idea about what it was like to participate in the sit-in.

Participants are given noise-canceling headphones that play an audiotape of people screaming and shouting obscenities. This simulates what was being said to the four college students who originally sat at the countertop in 1960.

Gipson recalls sitting next to Bailey while going through the simulation. She said it was a very moving experience and she remembers being extremely emotional after the simulation was over.

“It lasted maybe eight seconds, and to think that people sat there for eight hours going through all that. What I was feeling was the surface of what they were feeling,” Gipson said.

For Bailey, the emotions he felt in this moment brought back memories from when he was growing up. Bailey said these moments are more than just learning experiences for students, but life lessons for the next generation of leaders.

Bailey said that there is nothing more rewarding for him than to see his students go out into the world and help mold society into a more unified place.

“You cherish your work with students, you hope for the best and then it’s always gratifying to see them grade you decades down the road,” Bailey said.

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