Tuesday, July 14, 2015

R.I.P., Judge D'Army Bailey, Memphis Civil Rights Leader and One of My Law Professors

I was saddened and shocked to read today of the death of Memphis, Tennessee Circuit Court Judge D'Army Bailey, at age 73.

Judge D'Army Bailey was my law professor for Evidence Seminar at Memphis State University Law School during 1985, co-teaching with legendary law professor Robert C. Banks, Jr., my mentor, whom I was privileged to have as my professor for some 27 of 93 credits in law school. They both inspired me to speak out against injustice and be thorough in my research, investigation and use of evidence.

In 1985 still a practicing lawyer, Judge Bailey was a wit and a sage.  I was the closeted Gay law student who made the presentation on the marital privilege in evidence law, objecting on equal protection grounds because Gay people then could not get married.  Judge Bailey said, "well, that argument might do well in San Francisco, but ah…."  During that early morning Evidence Seminar discussion -- at a pretty reliably liberal law school in the midst of the belt buckle of the Bible Belt in the dark years of the Reagan administration -- probably neither Judge Bailey nor I would have ever anticipated the Supreme Court's June 26, 2015 Gay marriage decision, which fully vindicated my views as a somewhat indignant 28 year old law student in Judge Bailey's and Professor Banks' Evidence Seminar class that morning.

I can't think of better mentors than D'Army Bailey, Bob Banks and Dan Norwood, or a better place to learn civil rights and employment law, than Memphis, Tennessee! Gerry Fleischut, NLRB Regional Director, told our Labor Law class there were more classic Wagner Act violations in Memphis than anywhere else he ever worked. The 1968 garbage workers' strike was an epic struggle. As my first boss, Senator Ted Kennedy said, "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Shelby County Circuit Court Judge D'Army Bailey was a civil rights activist who founded the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, at the site of the former Lorrane Motel, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered April 4, 1968.  He Several times a week as a second and third year law student during 1984-86, I would ride the 50 bus from Memphis State University's campus in East Memphis, passing the Lorraine Motel on my way to clerking for legendary Memphis human rights attorney Dan M. Norwood. Our 50 bus, 90% African-American, on the drive west to downtown, would pass the then-derelict Lorraine Motel. Who would have imagined that one day, in only a few years, it would be turned into a world-class civil rights museum?  D'Army Bailey imagined it, rescuing the motel from demolition and foreclosure, then raising tens of millions of dollars to showcase the cause of human and civil rights. Among the artifacts on display there are excerpts from Judge Bailey's own Federal Bureau of Investigation file, with which he regaled us one morning in Evidence Seminar at Memphis State, describing young "D'Army Bailey," a radical Yale University student working for civil rights in the South. Judge Bailey will be greatly missed by lawyers, litigants, civil rights activists, all who treasure justice and his former students and Memphis State law school professor colleagues (now University of Memphis). He was only 73.

Inspired by Judge Bailey's example, we're hoping for a big civil rights museum in St. Augustine, Florida one day.

Here is Judge Bailey's New York Times obituary, which appears in today's newspaper (appropriately Bastille Day):

JULY 13, 2015
D’Army Bailey, a lifelong civil rights crusader who successfully campaigned to transform the forlorn motel where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 into a civil rights museum, died on Sunday in Memphis. He was 73.

D’Army Bailey in 1989 outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The National Civil Rights Museum opened there in 1991.  Jim Burton

The cause was cancer, his brother, Walter L. Bailey Jr., said.

By 1982, Dr. King’s legacy had been honored in shrines and street signs across the country. But Mr. Bailey considered the derelict Lorraine Motel in Memphis singularly sacred.

Calling the motel “the site of the crucifixion,” Mr. Bailey said the National Civil Rights Museum would “signal to the world that Memphis has come to grip with the tragedy of Dr. King’s death here, and has drawn from it the tools to mold a unique educational tool.”

Speaking at the museum’s dedication in 1991, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said: “To not have this museum in Memphis would be like the Christians celebrating Christmas and never celebrating Easter. Memphis, his last sermon. Memphis, the vision of the mountaintop. Memphis, the last march. Memphis, the last interruption. Memphis, the last breath.”

The son of a Pullman porter, Mr. Bailey was only a boy in 1954 when he watched with his brother from the outskirts of Elmwood Cemetery as Memphis’s old guard gathered to pay their final respects to E. H. Crump, the local political boss. Coupled with the United States Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision, the year would signal a turning point, both for the South and for Mr. Bailey.

D’Army Bailey was born in South Memphis on Nov. 29, 1941. His father, Walter Sr., worked for the railroad; his mother, the former Willella Jefferson, was a barber. He was named Darmy, after his grandfather, but for some reason a teacher in elementary school inserted an apostrophe.

Expelled from Southern University, a historically black college in Baton Rouge, La., after he was arrested at an antisegregation demonstration organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, Mr. Bailey transferred to Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1967, he helped dispatch lawyers and law students to Memphis, where Dr. King was supporting striking sanitation workers; became executive director of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council in New York City; and recruited fellow lawyers to register black voters in Mississippi.

In 1969, Mr. Bailey moved to Berkeley, Calif., where he was elected to the City Council in 1971. He refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at Council meetings because, he said, the United States was not “one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Two years later, after being branded an obstructionist and a racial provocateur, he lost a recall vote.

Returning to Memphis to practice law, Mr. Bailey organized a campaign in 1982 to spare the Lorraine Motel, once a haven for black travelers in the segregated South, but by then facing foreclosure.

As president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memphis Memorial Foundation, he managed to buy the motel with $67,000 raised from local citizens, supplemented at the last moment by a $50,000 bank loan and a $25,000 contribution from the national public employees union.

The $9.7 million museum opened on July 4, 1991, at a ceremony attended by Rosa Parks, the Montgomery bus boycott pioneer, and Mr. Jackson (who had been present on April 4, 1968, when Dr. King was shot from across the street).

The two rooms that Dr. King had rented were restored, the bloodstained concrete slab was reset on the balcony and exhibits were installed depicting five centuries of history. Last year, a $27.5 million renovation was completed.

Mr. Bailey wrote two books, “Mine Eyes Have Seen: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Journey” (1993) and “The Education of a Black Radical: A Southern Civil Rights Activist’s Journey, 1959-1964” (2009). He also appeared in a number of films, including “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” in which Mr. Bailey, who had by then become a judge, played a judge.

He retired as a Circuit Court judge in 2009 after serving 19 years, but he returned to the bench last year.

In addition to his brother, he is survived by his wife, the former Adrienne Leslie, and two sons, Justin and Merritt.

The King family was not involved in the museum and had cautioned Mr. Bailey against referring to Dr. King in its name.

“I would have loved to have had their involvement at the time, but in retrospect I believe we ended up having a freer hand,” he said in 1995. He also rejected criticism that the location was too mournful.

“This was a blessed project from the beginning,” Mr. Bailey said. “It’s living history, and I don’t see it as the scene of a defeat or one bit morbid. Everybody dies, and that’s the price we all pay. This is the place where Dr. King paid his price in triumph.”

Judge Bailey in 2005. He retired as a Circuit Court judge in 2009 after serving 19 years, but returned to the bench last year. 
CreditRollin Riggs 

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