Every so often men come along who by the sheer force of their wills and determination make a difference in society.
Alton has had its share of men like this. Men who have made a difference in the lives of Altonians, who have made Alton a more inclusive and better place to live. Any well-thought-out list of such exemplars would certainly include the names Elijah J. Conley, James M. Bailey and James Edward Gray. Mr. Conley and Mr. Bailey have gone on to their just rewards. Gray’s days of battle are winding down, but he alone of these three giants of Alton civil rights history remains in the fray.
I am proud to say that Conley was the grandfather of my children. Fearless and fair-minded, he believed his children were endowed with the same rights as white schoolchildren in Alton. He forced the integration of the Alton junior high schools so that his children could attend the school nearest to their home. This was in 1949, a full five years before Brown v. Board of Education. For his efforts, Grandpa Lije was blacklisted by elements of the white power structure. Crosses were burned on his lawn. Shots were fired into his home. Through it all, he refused to budge. But when his credit was cut off by local suppliers, his construction business suffered, and he was forced to relocate his family and business to Dayton, Ohio. He left behind an indelible mark on Alton education and society.
James M. Bailey’s coming to Alton from Mexico, Mo., was an unexpected blessing. He arrived just in time to assist in the planning and implementation of the full desegregation of the Alton schools some 10 years after Elijah J. Conley had fired the opening salvo. Mr. Bailey was a paragon of professional excellence. He was possessed of the necessary interpersonal skills that enabled him to work with the retreating old guard segregationists. His was a voice of calm, deliberate reason.
During his 38-year tenure in the Alton School District, Bailey served as teacher, coach, principal, the administrative supervising principal of elementary schools and as the assistant to the superintendent of schools. In the process, he mentored, guided, cajoled and encouraged hundreds of African American students to perform, dream, aspire and achieve. By them, he was revered.
In his “second career,” Mr. Bailey was the first African-American elected to the Alton City Council. When he was appointed comptroller of the city of Alton, he became the highest-ranking black in city history. Bailey was a trailblazer who worked within the system to make the institutions of Alton inclusive and multi-cultural. James Marvin Bailey was a quiet giant in the history of education and race relations in Alton, and like Frank Sinatra he “did it his way.”
James Edward Gray is different things to different people — lightning rod, controversial, bold and outspoken. He is an acknowledged devotee of Elijah Conley and James Bailey. Love him or hate him, James Gray has dominated the Alton-Madison County civil rights scene for 24 years. Under Gray’s leadership the NAACP has been on the frontline of change in education, civil rights and countywide political affairs. Whether you agree with him or not, when issues arise that affect the African-American community, James Gray is front row center, insisting that fairness and equality are the order of the day. Before Gray’s tenure, the NAACP office was in the home of whoever was president. Now, under Gray’s stewardship, they have an office building at 731 Silver St. in Alton. The NAACP’s list of accomplishments under Gray is noteworthy:
A Junior R.O.T.C. program of Alton High that has served hundreds of students over the years — black and white alike.
A Martin Luther Ling field trip to Memphis that also served hundreds of students — black and white alike.
A “C” average scholarship program has given tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships to encourage average students to attend college and thus empower their dreams.
An annual “Back to School Stay in School” motivational program that provides free food, motivational speakers, fun activities, essential school supplies and backpacks to hundreds of underprivileged children.
Gray was also instrumental in the appointment of a second African-American judge to the bench in Madison County.
Early in his career, Gray intervened and stopped an Ameritech downsizing and saved the jobs of 25 employees.
For years, under former School Superintendent Mike Beaber, Gray led recruitment teams to black colleges that brought outstanding teachers to Alton.
Under Gray, the annual NAACP Freedom Fund dinner is a huge success.
Elijah Conley and James Bailey were the early giants that paved the way. James Gray stands firmly and capably on their shoulders. All three of these men were small in stature, but they were giants in the struggle for justice, fairness and human rights. When Gray retires, from whence will our next “giant” emerge?