Ken Bailey: Radical Black Socialist

by | Feb 15, 2022 | Featured, Ideas, Reports, Struggle

Portrait of Ken Bailey. Art by Allie Ophardt

Ken Bailey was born February 20, 1946 in New York City. He was raised in St. Albans, a neighborhood on the south east side of Queens, by Black working-class parents who influenced Ken with their leftist thoughts and actions. Now, almost 76, Ken resides in southern Maine with his wife, Janice. But his journey from NYC to Maine wasn’t a straight line. It involved evolving radical politics, crisscrossing the US, and even a trip to Moscow in 1968. Ken has heard Stokely Carmichael speak, rubbed elbows with leaders of the Yippies and Black Panthers at Berkeley, was elected President of the Queens Anti-Draft Union, and was sent to Russia to represent the U.S. Young Communist League. Needless to say, Ken has had a politically invigorating life, and it’s hard for the authors to say whether this makes it more or less surprising that he has ended up a member of the local Maine DSA chapter.

T. Sinclair and Barney McLelland sat down with Ken on February 5 and what follows here are edited excerpts from the full transcript. We encourage you to read the full transcript here in order to get the whole story.

 

On his parents’ influence

My father was part of the group at the Bronx Post Office which helped build the postal union[…] in the late fifties they organized a union, and he was part of that. And my mother, actually her politics were more radical—Barney will know about Local 1199—when they began to form [the union] back in the fifties and sixties, she was part of that when the nurses began. Of course, you know, I was a kid, I didn’t care. I didn’t know that much about it, but as I got older I began to realize that a lot of that discussion was around the house. 

On college at Central State

My uncle was trying to get me to become an accountant, but it just seemed too boring for me. I was a big history major [at Central College], and I thought, you know, I’d become the next Du Bois or something like that.

That’s when I started reading. There was a woman, her name was Mrs. Robinson, and she was the history teacher. And that’s where I learned about Eugene Debs. You know, she loved that man. She gave me something to read about him when he got busted for the World War One thing. [Debs was imprisoned for his opposition and ran for president as the Socialist Party candidate from prison in 1920.]  But that’s when I began to see that there was more to the world than just New York and Tammany Hall and that stuff. But then in the fall of 1966, Stokely Carmichael—who had just been elected the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—visited. Stokely was about 24 and he came to speak and he gave this wonderful speech. 

On going to California during Sophomore Year

So then I found the Affirmative Action program in California and I went out and that was the biggest epiphany for me. These guys were talking about Franz Fanon, who wrote Wretched of the Earth and, you know, a lot of it was really militant stuff.

So, I began to take that on slowly, but in the meantime, I met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. And these guys were there every day at Sproul Hall, this big area over on the Berkeley campus. And they would sit out there with books, they called them the Quotations from Chairman Mao or The Little Red Book, and these guys used to sell them for under a dollar, about 50 of them a day and have discussions with people there. And I was just listening because, like I said, I was kind of green to all of that, but that’s when I began to realize that these guys were closer to me and my thinking than I realized.

And so then I started getting involved with them. The Black Panthers hadn’t been formed at this particular point because they were using the money to get rent so that they could have a meeting place. And I also met this guy, Jerry Rubin, who was part of what they call the Yippies, the Youth International Party, and this guy, Stew Albert. Those were the white guys who were pretty cool at that point. They understood a lot of stuff and we would have conversations back and forth. There was a restaurant in Berkeley there where students like myself could get a 50 cent bowl of fried rice and a 50 cent beer. We’d sit at the table and talk politics all of the time. So that was the beginning of it. And I began to get a better understanding of what was happening in the world.

Heading Back East

Then Reagan got elected [Governor of California], and the first thing he does is he cuts the funds for the program that I’m in and says it’s only for residents and I’d only been there seven months. So you need to be there a year before you’re resident. I got kicked out on my butt, so I went back east. 

When I got back East I enrolled in Queens College, which was the local city school where I grew up. I went there and I got involved with some anti-war people and we were protesting the war, going to demonstrations. There were 500 people or whatever. And what happened was that some sectarian types in a group called the Progressive Labor Party—they were like Maoists—and they were coming in, running roughshod over all the organizations. So I just woke up one day and said, look, you know, you gotta give people a chance to speak, and so forth. So what happened was I was elected the president of the Queens anti-draft union.

Ken Bailey speaking at an anti-war rally in Columbus, Ohio in either 1971 or 1972.

Experience with the Communist Party

I saw that the Young Communist League was the most sound. They understood racism better than any of the other left wing groups. And then I met the other members of the YCL in Brooklyn and other places. […] They would talk about Spain and the Spanish Civil War, because several of them had been involved in that. And then I learned a lot about McCarthyism and how many people had lost their jobs and, you know, had struggled because of the FBI.

The Communist Party (CPUSA) made it a point that all of the committees had to have minorities in them and in New York, of course, most of the minorities were either, you know, African American or Latino, and they also made a big effort to include women. So, you know, we had a lot of women in the leadership and a lot of women wrote for the Daily World. They were really good. In fact, what they used to do in the Daily World was to do different stories on people who were not Communists, but who were progressives, you know, just trying to build a better world from the 1920s on. 

You had people being invited over to someone’s dinner… which is commonplace now but in those days, you know, the only time you saw minorities in other organizations were in big groups. But you know, a lot of them didn’t take you home for dinner, but in the Party they did, you know. So, what happened was that I, you know, I felt that was the strongest point about the Party. If the DSA can do that, then they would have the same entry to the Black community.

Doubts about the CPUSA

The biggest problem with the CP was [their treatment of] the Soviet Union. […] I went to the International Youth Festival in ‘68 [in Bulgaria], and I met people from the Chinese party, the Korean party, and the Czechoslovakian party who got the biggest cheers. They had signs with Alexander Dubček’s name on them. [He was the leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party who was attempting to reform the Communist system, which touched off what was called the Prague Spring.]

And when I met these [Czech] guys, they didn’t sound revisionist to me [that’s what the anti-Dubček people called them]. They sounded like they wanted to build a humane [society]. You know, to lower the police aspect of the state and do more with economics. And what happened was that, I’m in my hotel in Moscow the day of the invasion. And then I come down for breakfast and I have this pamphlet and it’s telling me about the solidarity between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. And I found out that the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia. All of the people who were with me—except for some of the young Communist officials—you know, were appalled at what had happened.

And then when we got back to New York, I began to go to meetings and the [people supporting the invasion] were talking about, well, the reason that they [invaded] is that some of the people who were part of the fascist movement were still in Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, the Soviets weren’t the leaders they needed to be in order to build a strong international movement.

Getting involved with Maine socialists

I’m not sure if I met Barney before or not, but when I found out that there was an active Chapter here, I went to a couple meetings [in 2018] before we were banned from City Hall, and I started talking to people and I thought “oh, this is interesting,” so I went to more meetings. And what happened was that some of the people I talked to were very intelligent, and it wasn’t a pretend socialist thing. When they started talking about, as Barney said, including ultra-leftists and social democrats, I could see that people there were looking for answers. What happened was that, like a few months ago when you did the Rosa Luxemburg [Study Group], you could see that people were moving beyond the “safe steps,” and starting to talk about real socialism, and how it can affect us.

What kind of advice might you have for the young, anti-racist socialists of today?

You guys are my comrades, you know, I feel about you the way I did about many of the people I knew when I was younger who were trustworthy. The thing that I admire is the genuineness of wanting to be my friend or comrade, and so forth. That’s the thing about it, a lot of people are frustrated and they feel like they’re alone. And having guys like you, I know I’m not alone. What we need to do is get some of those people who don’t know that they have people out there like us who will have their backs. I don’t think that we emphasize that enough, that the DSA has your back. That’s something that we need to do. After all, I’m nervous about the fall elections, but we have to be prepared that if [the Republicans] do all that stuff [regarding voter restrictions and ballot manipulation], that the public isn’t going to accept that wholeheartedly. So we’re going to have to be part of the active movement that counters that. And I don’t see us doing that at the moment.

 

T. Sinclair has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine. They are a life long Mainer and member of the Pine & Roses Editorial Collective.

Barney McLelland

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