VOL. 130 | NO. 135 | Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Judge D’Army Bailey’s Legacy Spans Streets, Courtroom
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey was more than a robed courtroom figure. In the wake of his death Sunday, July 12, from cancer, Bailey is being remembered for a life of activism in which the judge had roots as a radical.
Funeral services for Bailey, who was 73, will be Saturday at noon at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, 70 N Bellevue Blvd. Visitation will be Friday from 2-6 p.m. at the National Civil Rights Museum.
Bailey's death came less than a year after he 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 rounded up and led the group of civic leaders who in 1982 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 clashed with the board of directors on the museum’s direction 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, Bailey was a featured speaker at the rededication.
“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,” he 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.”
Bailey 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.
“Boss Crump” signified the old political order that clung to power fiercely – an order that Bailey and other activists sought to overthrow. And overthrow was one of the precise ways Bailey described his intent, with little desire then or later in life to moderate his language.
“We are a minority community,” he said earlier this year of Memphis’ racial politics. “Not a minority community in numbers, but a minority in power.”
As a college student in the 1960s, Bailey was expelled from Southern University, a historically black college in Baton Rouge, La., for his activism. He 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, out of the area by hiding him in the back of a hearse.
Bailey continued his activism at Clark College in Worcester, Mass., in the early 1960s, including working and protesting with counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman’s 1980 biography, “Soon to be a Major Motion Picture,” recounted his time with Bailey.
“D’Army Bailey was black and angry,” is how Hoffman introduced him to readers and recounted their role in forming what Hoffman called “the most militant NAACP chapter in the country.”
“Those years … were filled with the cry of a movement at its purest moment,” Hoffman wrote of sit-ins as well as a blockade at a Worcester defense plant in which Bailey, Hoffman and others crawled under a diesel truck to prevent it from entering the plant.
By the 1968 sanitation workers strike that brought King to Memphis, Bailey was working for a legal nonprofit in Massachusetts. The group 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 civil rights movement during 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.”