Black History Month is now officially over, but my mind doesn’t follow the calendar, even in a year that gives us an extra day in February. This is my last profile of a participant in Lexington’s Civil Rights Movement, and it is one I never thought I would profile: Ronald C. Berry, founder of Micro City Government, who went from Civil Rights leader in the ’60s, to the face and centerpiece of Lexington’s most expensive governmental scandal of the ’90s. This is the paradox of Ron Berry: Was he a hero or a villain, or in some way, both?
“When are you going to write about Ronnie Berry?” Calvert McCann asked me this week.
“I’m not going to,” I said.
“His story needs to be told, too,” Calvert said.
“I’m not the one to write it,” I said.
“Who else is going to?” he asked.
I know two things about Ronald Coleman Berry. One is that he was recognized by many participants in the local Civil Rights Movement as a faithful leader, respected and looked up to by many, as the organizer of marches and sit-ins when few others wanted to participate.
The other is that when Berry was indicted for child molestation in 1998, he became the central figure in a scandal that ripped apart polite Lexington for the four years after the indictment, until he was eventually convicted – after two mistrials – and the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government paid out $2.4 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by his victims, the largest single settlement ever paid by the city. The litigation is ongoing to this day, and I was part of it, having been co-counsel for the group of victims who received that settlement.
Who was the real Ron Berry? Was it the Ron Berry who marched with Calvert McCann and Julia Lewis and Abby Marlatt, all of whom were his friends and fellow demonstrators, or was it the Ron Berry who was convicted and imprisoned for sexually molesting children? Or, asked another way, how can one person embody both good and evil?
This wasn’t the first time the question has been asked, nor even the first time it has been asked of me. I remember a wedding reception on the grounds of Ashland, Henry Clay’s elegant home. I was seated with Al Smith, the great Kentucky broadcaster and then-host of KET’s Comment on Kentucky. I was aglow with success, having famously settled the Berry case, and having brought my next big sex abuse case, in which I represented victims suing the Catholic Church. I was as big an expert as an owner who has won his first stakes race.
“Bob,” Mr. Smith (I can’t call him Al, even in print) asked me in that wonderful voice he has, like molasses drizzling onto a plate, “I was a young reporter in the South during the early ’60s, and Archbishop Bernard Law was a young priest there who marched with the protestors and participated in the Civil Rights Movement. How could the same man be so progressive, and so kind, and so right on one issue, and then cover up pedophilia?”
It was a question I had asked myself not only about Law, but about so many priests and bishops, and even officials of our local school district, which I also got around to suing. Because the first thing I learned about childhood sexual abuse is that it’s not the creepy guy in the basement who is likely to be a child molester. It is far more likely to be the popular teacher, or the popular coach, or the popular priest, or in Berry’s case the popular youth leader. And most of them got popular by doing some good things, as Berry clearly did.
“I don’t condone what Berry did later,” Calvert McCann, who photographed Berry many times at marches and demonstrations said, “but his story needs to be told along with the others.”
And his story is a cautionary tale. Berry went from leading demonstrations against segregation to founding Micro City Government, a youth organization largely funded by the city, which, according to a series of lawsuits, and his own indictment, he turned into a private kingdom, using it to seduce dozens of young black males over the decades. As head of Micro City Government, Berry gained access to the very city hall he used to protest. He attended meetings with mayors and council members, and was so vocal some called them “Mau Mau” meetings behind his back. He demanded, and received, government funding for a wide range of programs, many of which did go to benefit inner city youth, if, for some, at a terrible cost.
And, is there another civil rights issue here? Ron Berry was widely perceived as gay, in an age which was barely ready to recognize the civil rights of African Americans, and was nowhere near ready to recognize them for gays, lesbians, and others outside the norm. Every mayor of Lexington from its merger with Fayette County in 1974 until the lawyers got around to taking their depositions in the early 2000s, said the same thing: Berry was perceived as gay, but not as a pedophile. Every participant in the civil rights marches and demonstrations I have talked to has said the same.
Lexington’s African American community has always been described to me as not hospitable to gays. I have had more than one community member tell me that gay men were looked down upon in their culture, which was always cited to me as one reason the victims of Berry took so long to come forward. And yet, Berry seems to have suffered little for his having been perceived as gay, nor did the only other prominent gay African American man I know of here, James Herndon, known as Sweet Evening Breeze, described by Lexington Herald Leader columnist Don Edwards as the most famous transvestite in America. Stories in Lexington abound about Sweets, invariably positive. Both he and Berry were well known in Lexington, both well respected, and both pillars of their respective churches, in an era when few churches, black or white, welcomed gays. All of which goes to show that history is more complicated than you ever thought.
And then, just to get personal, let’s add another element to it. Calvert didn’t say this, and he didn’t have to. I, myself, am a convicted felon and disbarred lawyer. Can I ask for acceptance from polite society, that someone look at me as something beyond my criminal record, and deny that to another? For the paradox of Ron Berry is the paradox of humanity: We are all both saints and sinners. While few sin so terribly as Berry, perhaps few risk as much for causes they believe in as he did, either, or do so with as many strikes against them as he did, or have as much success as he ultimately had, before he brought himself down.
I can’t in good conscience say that Ron Berry has ever been a personal hero of mine; as a lawyer, I was on the other side of that deal. But as a historian, one must recognize that, despite Berry’s crimes and convictions, there was a time when he was a young man with a dream, leading his fellow young people on a quest for freedom, and for acceptance. Calvert McCann’s point to me is that there are those out there who still remember that young Ron Berry, and what he stood for. And we need to remember it for history, too.
This cautionary tale ends my series of profiles of heroes of the civil rights movement, though I will present one final column tomorrow, summarizing some of the things I’ve learned as I’ve walked through Black History Month.
I am pleased that KyForward.com Publisher and Editor Judith Clabes, and her staff, have given me the opportunity to present this informal series on Black History Month. They have kindly asked me to continue writing, which for me is like asking me to continue breathing. As I have written this series of profiles, I have had many thoughts about the richness of our local history, and ideas for stories about that history. This series has been in the form of profiles of individuals, but my local history series will be broader, to include little stories about historical events, places and, of course, people. When I practiced law, much of my practice related to the thoroughbred horse business, a business I love. I want to turn that love into some columns on the history of the horse business in Kentucky, and if some of them focus on African Americans’ contribution to that business, that’s OK, too. I hope you, the reader, will make suggestions as to the route, and come along for the trip!
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.