Commentary: Bearden's Images of Diversity Reflect an Earlier Berkeley

Friday January 06, 2006

My friend and fellow former Berkeley City Councilmember Ira Simmons recently forwarded me the Daily Planet story from last summer on the return to the City Council Chambers of the mural by famed artist Romare Bearden. I appreciate the story in noting the genesis of the Bearden project when Ira and I challenged the council to modify its all-white picture display in the council chambers. We did this shortly after we were elected in 1971. 

Berkeley was very fortunate to have cultural visionaries like Carl Worth to direct us to Bearden and help make the project a reality. 

The Berkeley Art Commission’s support was also key in getting an otherwise contentious City Council to reach agreement on this project. 

Ira and I spent time with Bearden and his wife Nanette as they visited to get a feel for the city and its people. They were wonderful and gentle and I remained in contact with Bearden in the years following.  

When Ira, Loni Hancock and I were elected to the City Council in 1971, the conservatives and moderate Democrats vowed immediately to recall us. But by 1973 they narrowed their focus to me and recalled me in a special election in August of that year. Their strategy was that by ousting me they could torpedo the parliamentary turmoil and skillful grassroots offensive we orchestrated which was forcing open doors for blacks, and creating new respect for struggling segments of the city’s alternative communities.  

Just before the recall, the conservatives had beaten the political left in a special election to amend the city charter to require candidates to get a majority vote. With a recall election requiring me to get a majority vote they knew they could avoid the pitfall of a splintered vote with no runoff which enabled me to win in the first place. 

Shortly after the recall, Bearden agreed to do a collage “around [me]; [my] career and Berkeley.” In October, 1973, three months after the recall he wrote: 

“D’Army: I suppose you are getting things together for your collage? Mine, for Berkeley, is now started and I hope to have it out there fairly soon. Incidentally, a work of mine opens a new movie “Five on the Black Hand Side.” It is a very good movie—a comedy warm, human, and a relief from the “Shaft” shoot-um-up flicks. I was speaking to a young girl from Stanford and she knew all about you and Ira—and Berkeley politics. Please return to that battle; because you’re sure to be back on the council—and from there to jail, or the Senate. We just escaped fascism by the skin of our teeth—but those guys will keep on trying. That’s why we need you and Ira; there are hard times ahead.” 

The dynamic and colorful 20X16-inch collage Bearden created has been a source of inspiration for me for the last 30 years. Along with the collage, Bearden sent a personal check for $25 toward the expenses of fighting the recall. 

A couple of months ago I was in Berkeley, headed to Mendocino. A friend and I met for lunch in the area off University down by the bay. It was slightly saddening to see the changes in the neighborhood. Where before vibrant black life and community were in West Berkeley, they are now no more. Today the area appears largely populated by fashionable whites, chic shops and restaurants where some didn’t appear too kind to share an outdoor seat at a table. In the city that once had a 25 percent black population the number of blacks has dropped dramatically. 

As I walked back to my car from lunch I did notice a police car displayng the city’s seal with Bearden’s four faces of diversity from his collage. Perhaps the spirit of that great artist will someday fuel a resurgence of honest inclusiveness and greater civic humility. 


D’Army Bailey is a Tennessee Circuit Judge in Memphis.