|The late D'Army Bailey|
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
BREAKING: Memphis mourns passing of Civil Rights icon D'Army Bailey
Editor's Note: D’Army Bailey’s ongoing journey to make Greater Memphis and the country a better place to live, especially for African Americans, ended Sunday.
A mentor and inspiration to many, Mr. Bailey – attorney, former judge, author, founder of the National Civil Rights Museum and always an activist – passed away at age 73, succumbing to cancer.
The New Tri-State Defender will chronicle the passing of Mr. Bailey in this week’s edition. The newspaper’s archives include this 2010 story about Mr. Bailey’s book “The Education of a Black Radical.” The story features a Q&A with Mr. Bailey in which he shares details about the person so many grew to love and respect. We reprint it here in respectful tribute.
D’Army Bailey: Once a radical, still an activist
Some of the battles he fought are duly noted in his latest book, “The Education of a Black Radical: A Southern Civil Rights Activist’s Journey 1959-1964.”
The book follows the journey of a boy from the LeMoyne Gardens housing project who became a successful lawyer, actor, judge, author and activist.
It tells the story of a man who courageously took a stand even when there was a price to pay.
At Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., he was expelled for leading a boycott protesting the administration’s views on segregation.
He enrolled at Clark University in Worchester, Mass., and then at Yale University, where he received a law degree.
In 1971, Bailey entered politics and won a seat on the Berkeley City Council, but was recalled in 1973 after conservatives and moderates, angered by his outspokenness, targeted him. He returned to Memphis a year later, where he noticed that the political landscape had changed, but not to his satisfaction.
In 1983, Bailey ran for mayor in a race that included African-American political heavyweights John Ford and Otis Higgs, with Dick Hackett emerging as the eventual winner. Seven years later, Bailey won a seat on the bench of the Circuit Court of Tennessee.
On Sept. 15 of last year, Bailey retired as judge and now practices law with Wilkes & McHugh. His book is on sale in the bookstore of the National Civil Rights Museum, which he founded.
In the following Q & A, Bailey offered a glimpse of what moved him into activism and what lessons others can learn:
Tri-State Defender: Your autobiographical book “The Education of a Black Radical” gives us a glimpse of your life between 1959-1964. What inspired you to tell this story and the planned second and third installments?
D’Army Bailey: The written word is a powerful force to educate and energize people. When in high school, I had a Remington typewriter and wrote for the Booker T. Washington High School newspaper, and the Tri State Defender and Memphis World. It was a blessing for me to grow up during the burgeoning of the civil rights movement. My book, “The Education of A Black Radical,” is full of untold stories from the inside of the civil rights movement. One of the remaining two books I will write will focus on my experiences in later years, in the 1970s when I was deeply involved in progressive and radical politics in Northern California. The other volume will be the story of my return to Memphis, a look at some of the city’s political and economic power brokers, and the documented inside story of the founding of the National Civil Rights Museum. For me, writing is therapeutic. It allows a release and reflection on internalized experiences drawn into perspective.
TSD: What was the spark that ignited your activism, your source of inspiration?
Bailey: It may have been when during my teen years my daddy got fired from his job as a train porter with the Illinois Central Railroad and I called the company president’s office in Chicago. Daddy was reinstated but not because of my call. Or maybe my activism started when I was fired from my high school job as an orderly at John Gaston Hospital for speaking back to a white supervisor. Afterward, I sat outside the hospital boardroom waiting to protest but the board would not hear me. I didn’t get my job back. But, in both instances, I knew that the right thing to do – if you felt aggrieved – was to take your grievance to the highest level possible.
TSD: Did you show independence and possess leadership skills at an early age?
Bailey: My earliest leadership was probably as a patrol captain for the street safety patrol at LaRose Elementary. In high school, I was president of the Counts, a citywide teenage men’s club, and “Sweetheart” of a girls social club centered mostly at Carver High School. I also did a teenage radio show three days a week, 15 minutes a day on WLOK.
TSD: Was civil rights and the pursuit of freedom and equality talked about in the home while growing up with your mother and father?
Bailey: In my home on Sundays we would listen to “Brown America Speaks” with Nat D. Williams on WDIA. Professor Williams was an early 1950s voice for the dignity and rights of black people. When blacks boycotted The Commercial Appeal newspaper because the newspaper would not use courtesy titles in referring to blacks, and to get the paper to stop running the daily Hambone’s Meditations, which caricatured blacks, my family stopped taking the paper, and only later resumed taking it once a week. When my mother took us downtown she wouldn’t let us eat in the white stores where blacks had to stand because, as she explained, “We weren’t horses and shouldn’t have to eat standing up.”
TSD: In Memphis, the Tri-State Defender was there to report and photograph the good, bad and the ugly side of the civil rights movement. Were you inspired by some of these stories to pursue justice for African Americans?
Bailey: The Tri State Defender and other black publications informed and inspired me with their detailed stories about the killing of Emmitt Till, the white riots to keep black kids out of Central High School in Little Rock, and the courageous struggle of Negro leaders like King, Rosa Parks and Roy Wilkins who spoke up and took to the front lines in the fight for racial justice. One of my most important friends and mentors in high school was Thaddeus Stokes, a leading black journalist who left the Atlanta Daily World to lead the Memphis World newspaper.
TSD: Would you say you were rooted in civil rights activism?
Bailey: In high school my brother, Walter, and I did volunteer work with the Shelby County Democratic Club, the vanguard black civil rights organization in this city, which took the lead in mobilizing black voters around a civil rights agenda. We were inspired by the dedicated, courageous and visionary leadership of Russell Sugarmon, A.W. Willis, Jesse Turner, O.Z. Evers, Vasco and Maxine Smith, Melvin Robinson, Fred Davis and others. Some of these leaders came, in later years, to greatly disappoint me as narrow and self-serving. I will talk about some of that in my book on Memphis.
TSD: Forty-two years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have things changed for the better for African Americans?
Bailey: The economic, educational and social status of blacks is worsening and we are statistically worse off now than we were 10 years ago. By the time of his death, Dr. King knew that structural inequality was unyielding for black Americans. In 1967, (Dr. King) spoke: “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
TSD: Where do we go from here in a diverse society?
Bailey: If we continue on our current trend, a small number of us will slip through and be absorbed with token jobs and more pay, but an increasingly greater number of our people will fall through the cracks. Then those who think they made it upwards will come to the rude awakening that they have been isolated, marginalized and will get kicked in the butt at the will of the corporate establishment. We must first rebuild our respect and faith in ourselves and move from materialism to self-sacrifice and renewed struggle for racial, social and economic justice, and in the words of Dr. King “reconstruction of the entire society.”
TSD: Is race still a hindrance in today’s politics?
Bailey: When Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and the activists in Selma and Mississippi and other places fought for the right to vote, it was so we could get officials in office who would be dedicated to fighting for the rights of our people. Now, too many black officeholders use politics for their own economic and personal advancements and are silent on the real issues disproportionately affecting black communities. We need to step back and realize that money and special influence control many black as well as white politicians. We have got to mobilize, get back on the streets and in the public meetings so we will know first-hand what’s going on, and keep pressure on these politicians to keep them honest and accountable.