VOL. 130 | NO. 134 | Monday, July 13, 2015
Circuit Court Judge D'Army Bailey Dies At Age 73
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey died Sunday, July 12.
Word of the 73-year old jurist’s death comes less than a year after Bailey returned to the bench, winning election to Circuit Court after retiring as a Circuit Court Judge in 2009.
Bailey, the brother of Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey, was the founder and first leader of the National Civil Rights Museum, built on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Bailey led and rounded up the group of civic leaders in 1982 who put up the money to buy the hotel and begin its transformation into a museum that chronicled not only King’s death in Memphis but the civil rights movement before and after his assassination.
Bailey skillfully worked with leaders of the movement – still active and retired – to at least have them endorse the museum. That included working with the King family foundation to secure a visit by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who briefly visited the museum despite her long-held discomfort with the memories she and her family had of her husband’s death in Memphis.
Bailey clashed with the museum’s board of directors on the direction of the museum shortly after its 1991 opening and left in the dispute.
When the museum underwent a $27 million renovation in 2014 and debuted a much deeper and detailed look at the civil rights movement than the original museum, Bailey was a featured speaker at the rededication.
And he wasted little time in getting to the issue that played a role in his exit from the museum.
“One of the things we have to be concerned about is that when these corporations give their money, don’t let them set your agenda,” Bailey said. “It’s alright for them to give us help. But this is our struggle. And we have to be the ones to set the strategy, and we have to be the ones to decide the direction and what we do and how we do it.”
For Bailey, the history chronicled in the museum was a past that was being continuously added to and informing current events with or without attempts to learn from the past.
“We are a minority community,” he said earlier this year of the city’s racial politics. “Not a minority community in numbers, but a minority in power.”
Bailey came from a different part of the movement in the 1960s and 1970s and talked often of he and his brother watching from the edge of Elmwood Cemetery as political boss E. H. Crump was buried there in 1954.
He remembered the gathering of all elements of the city’s political leadership in the cemetery and how he and his brother watched from on outside defined by those with power on the inside.
Crump signified the old political order that clung to power fiercely long after Crump’s death. It was that political order that Bailey and others he worked with sought to overthrow. And overthrow was one of the precise ways Bailey described his intent with little desire then or in later life to moderate his language or his intent.
Bailey was expelled from Southern University, a historically black college in Baton Rouge, La. for his activism and talked later of being literally smuggled out of the area as Klan groups searched for him.
The area of Louisiana had so much Klan violence that it prompted the formation of an armed self-defense group later known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
The group once smuggled James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality – or CORE – out of the area by hiding him in the back of a hearse.
At Clark College in Worcester, Mass, Bailey continued his activism including working and protesting with 1960s counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman recounted his time with Bailey in his autobiography “Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture.”
Bailey hosted Hoffman and fellow Yippie leader Jerry Rubin decades later when they spoke at the University of Memphis.
By the 1968 sanitation workers strike that brought King to Memphis, Bailey was working for a legal nonprofit in Massachusetts that was sending young attorneys and law school students from across the nation to Memphis to help in what became the final defining chapter of the movement in King’s lifetime.
This past February, Bailey talked about that and the goal of his career in law as part of a panel discussion by the Black Law Students Association of the Cecil C. Humphreys University of Memphis School of Law.
“It’s the skills and the strategic wisdom that you gather in that trade that enables you to learn systems,” he told the group of about 100. “And as you learn systems, it gives you a sense of how you can challenge those systems and disrupt them.”
He said the city’s politics specifically needed the presence of more African-American attorneys running for elected office.
Bailey ran unsuccessfully for Memphis Mayor in 1983 following a tumultuous political chapter in Berkeley, Cal. where he was elected to the city council there and removed from office by a recall campaign in the mid-1970s.
Nearly 40 years later, Bailey said he expected the recall move to win given his radical views at the time and his desire to agitate for change as part of what he saw as the purpose of winning elected office.