|The late D'Army Bailey: Nov. 29, 1941 - July 12, 2015 (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)|
Monday, August 3, 2015
Legacy: D'Army Bailey: ‘It is a moral imperative that somebody keep up the fight’
“He was truly a renaissance man,” said Mayor A C Wharton Jr., sharing a reflection of the late Mr. Bailey whose myriad spheres of influence included scholar, author, actor, civil rights activist, jurist, husband, father, mentor and – some would say – at times the “conscience” of Memphis.
To Mr. Bailey, the husband of Adrienne Bailey and father to sons Justin and Merritt, public service and family life were inextricably linked, Justin Bailey said. “He was only here for 73 years, but he packed a lot in those 73 years.”
Mr. Bailey died of lung cancer on Sunday, July 12.
“My relationship with D’Army was a little different than my siblings and cousins,” said Javier Bailey, a nephew. “He stressed to me community activism. He said, ‘It is a moral imperative that somebody keep up the fight.’”
Bailey described his uncle as ferocious, “one of the strongest fighters I had ever seen.”
Mr. Bailey’s accomplishments were life-lessons for Justin Bailey, who recalls his father taking him through each step of the process when he founded and developed the National Civil Rights Museum. He and his brother were introduced to some of the top-tier players in the civil rights movement.
“He showed us a lot. I used to joke with my dad. I called him the Black Forrest Gump because he was in the middle of everything,” said Justin, recalling a weeklong trip that he and his father took to Havana, Cuba in 2010 to meet the court president of the People’s Supreme Court, Cuba’s highest court.
But it was the building of a museum from scratch that would remain an integral part of Justin’s life. “It’s an important piece in my lifetime,” he said.
The National Civil Rights Museum encompasses the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Decay and neighborhood blight diminished the motel’s appeal and its owner became engulfed in debt.
Seeing what had become of the motel, Mr. Bailey sprang to action and corralled people of means to save the motel from being auctioned off on the courthouse steps. He envisioned transforming it into a tourist attraction where the history of the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s legacy would be preserved.
“Judge Bailey was a man of action,” said Beverly Robertson, who served 16 years as NCRM’s president. “He knocked on doors in Nashville to get support. He was a special person, a courageous foot soldier who never took no for an answer.”
Noting that it was Mr. Bailey who stepped up to raise funds and secure state, county and city government help to bring about the National Civil Rights, Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis said Mr. Bailey’s vision and lifelong commitment to civil and human rights will not be forgotten.
The NCRM opened amid nationwide fanfare in 1991.
“As long as that museum lives, he will live,” said Robertson. “We’ve lost a unique individual whose legacy will long be remembered.”
Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. pointed to Mr. Bailey’s dedication to public service as his lifelong pursuit. “He served with fairness and professionalism in the judicial arena. Moreover, his guidance and expertise on civil rights and other community initiatives led to greater opportunities for the citizens of Shelby County.”
Mayor Luttrell said Mr. Bailey had two admirable traits: “He knew exactly where he stood. And he was straightforward.”
Early in his legal career, Mr. Bailey served as Mayor Wharton’s assistant when Wharton was chief public defender. He had the awesome responsibility of defending indigent individuals in death penalty cases, said Wharton.
“As an attorney and judge, the North Star of his universe was an unshakeable belief that our government, particularly the judicial branch, had as its scared responsibility the protection of the powerless from the powerful.”
Mr. Bailey practiced law for 16 years and served 19 years as a circuit court judge. He retired from the bench in 2009, went to work for the law firm Wilkes & McHugh P.A., and was elected again to the office last year.
“His life was dedicated to the service of others from his early fights during the civil rights era to his last days defending the most vulnerable in Tennessee courtrooms,” said state Rep. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville). “He is a legend whose example we must never forget.”
State Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) said she grew up watching Mr. Bailey and followed him into the field of law.
“His passion for not only the letter of the law, but the real people whom it impacted made him both tough and compassionate,” she said. “He believed in people and fought for them his whole life.”
State Rep. JoAnne Favors (D-Chattanooga), said, “As a state, we are the eternal beneficiaries of his vision. As a nation, we are the beneficiaries of his life’s work. He was a legend.”
Attorney and Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey said he and his brother “were inseparable in terms of our approach and beliefs. We fed off each other in our thoughts and ideas. His convictions and energies had a toxic effect and inspired other people.”
He called his brother a “patriot” who was “committed to social change and took means and measures to execute those social changes.”