Californians appear condemned to repeat history because they refuse to learn from it. I shake my head as the Berkeley recall of 30 years ago repeats itself on a statewide level.
I became the only person ever recalled from the City Council in Berkeley, and one of the few—if not only—black ever recalled in California history on Aug. 21, 1973. No one learned from the Berkeley experience that recalls start with those who lost the election and always play on the fears of a nervous populace. Moreover, recalls allow 25 percent or less of the voters in the last election to force an elected official to get a majority of the votes in his/her defense. This means that even though as many as 49 percent of those voting may favor the targeted officeholder, without a majority he or she loses-—and the minority which started the fight wins. The Berkeley recall began with the partnership of the liberal left and the Berkeley Black Caucus. A native of Memphis, I had finished my law degree at Yale University, moved to California to work for Legal Services and joined the Caucus. Flush with success of electing black Congressman Ron Dellums, the Caucus ran a coalition slate of blacks, whites and women in the April 1971 city elections. I was tapped as part of the coalition.
Our campaign platform included the creation of jobs with top priorities to minorities and women, expanded housing and child care programs, extended recreational facilities, and liberal juvenile justice policies. I promised quite clearly that I would serve the interests of the black community. Berkeley’s business, and conservative and moderate leaders were far from unified in the Council elections. But on the day after the election, the defeated conservatives and moderates announced a recall against our coalition. The strategies later became to recall Bailey and effectively neutralize the other black council member.
As a Councilman I challenged the city’s racial fairness in Berkeley City government. In my two and a half years the city hired its first black city manager and city attorney, passed an affirmative action program, increased blacks in police and fire, and gave the all-black garbage workers an accelerated wage increase to help them achieve parity. We opposed the Vietnam War and blocked a shopping mall development at the Berkeley Marina.
Conservatives and the business community mobilized their recall petition drive. The recall petition charged that I refused to compromise at council meetings; filibustered; and staged outbursts that caused the council to break up in disarray. They charged I disparaged the image of established black leaders, and introduced race into the politics of Berkeley. With financial support from businesses and relentless backing from the Berkeley Daily Gazette, Bailey recall went on the ballot. My financial backers became a subject of great interest-even reporter Mike Wallace pressed me on Sixty Minutes to reveal my financial sources. I was funded primarily by a discreet, progressive family who did not wish to be identified and not, as charged, by the CIA or Communists.
I had many supporters: Congressman Dellums, who was heavily reliant on the white left, made some statements against the recall; Legendary Longshoreman leader Harry Bridges who understood the divisive implication of recall. My main support came from those who elected me in the first place —the black community and white activists who supported black political self-determination.
Others came. Medgar Ever’s widow, Myrlie Evers and Jesse Jackson took to the streets of Berkeley for me. My fellow lawyers in National Bar Association took an unprecedented Convention vote denouncing the recall as “violating of Councilman Bailey’s constitutional right of free speech.” Black activist Angela Davis wrote that the recall’s “motivation is fundamentally racist and anti-democratic....D’Army’s seat was won by a coalition of voters who demanded representation, not for big business, but for the people.” The recallers’ main strategy was to make it appear that the 25 percent black population wanted me out. That strategy failed. I won every black precinct. But the conservatives weren’t really interested in what the blacks thought. I was beaten in the almost all-white, upper income Berkeley Hills where turnout was substantial.
The recall group manipulated the timing of the recall election to occur in the summer when most of the Berkeley college students were away. Though that may not have affected the ultimate outcome, it reflected the recallers’ cynical attempt to disenfranchise a large segment of the city’s voters. Later Berkeley banned special elections in the summer. Californians failed to grasp the lessons from this Berkeley slice of history and now they are doomed to repeat them.
For the past thirteen years D’Army Bailey has served as an elected State Circuit Judge in Memphis, Tenn. He is Tennessee’s designated founder of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.