D'Army Bailey: Activist, Attorney, Actor



From the sound of it, Memphis lawyer and former court judge D'Army Bailey doesn't only think in complete sentences or full paragraphs. More like whole pages at a time. But drawn from a recent 50-minute phone conversation — in time for the publication of Bailey's memoir The Education of a Black Radical: A Southern Civil Rights Activist's Journey 1959-1964 (Louisiana State University Press), here's the gist of it — "it" being Bailey's thoughts on a variety of subjects, from the state of the student protest movement to the state of South Memphis.

[The "movement." What movement?]
D'Army Bailey: Today, there is no student movement. To have a movement you have to have a theme, a political purpose, a defined purpose. It's not just about supporting President Obama. The support for Obama could be a political movement, but the difference between now and then [the early '60s] is that what those kids did in protesting segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina, they did on their own initiative. They stepped forward to take a strike against segregation.

My book is about how students, starting with their own ideas, moved as a group to say we're gonna stake out this as a political challenge, whether it was in Greensboro or Baton Rouge.

[Unlike, as Bailey describes in his book, the background to and forces behind the March on Washington in 1963.]
That march was supposed to be just that: a grass-roots mass mobilization. But it was preempted by corporate money and political power. The established black leadership — A. Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, etc. — combined with the Kennedy administration to "sanitize" the march. They all had their purposes, but theirs was a more toothless political thrust. It was similar to the thinking at Southern University and the school's president toward student protesters when I was in college: Go slow. We have the same objective, but you're moving too fast.

Today, you don't have any established powers saying to students you're moving too fast. Young people don't have ... a lot of it goes back to family background and environment. And a lot of it goes back to the universities, what these kids are taught and exposed to. Oftentimes, movements are ignited by the middle class, which is exposed to ideas and challenges and moves to put those ideas into action. That's what happened to us at Southern in the early '60s.


If you've got university campuses where the faculty is not politicized, you don't have the "heretics" in terms of ideas. Today, in the universities, here in this community ... you don't hear any voices of political challenge coming from the University of Memphis or Rhodes College. U.T. in Knoxville? I haven't heard a political voice coming out of that campus in 30-something years.

I had professors at Southern who taught that we had a responsibility to do something, to speak out. You don't hear that kind of conversation today.

[Some back story: after Bailey's time at Southern and at Clark University; after law school at Boston University and Yale; after years spent organizing students in the name of broader civil rights: Bailey's election to the Berkeley, California, city council.]
I was offered a job in San Francisco and offered a job by my brother Walter to work in his law firm in Memphis. But the offer from California was more attractive to a single man in 1968. So I practiced law in San Francisco for two years in the office of legal services, a lot of class-action litigation. But I wasn't living in San Francisco. I was living adjacent to Berkeley, because racial discrimination was so bad in San Francisco, especially when it came to a black man trying to find an apartment.

After I left that law office, I became involved in local politics, in Berkeley. The Black Panthers were active. Angela Davis was active. And I'd met some friends who were well-off. They provided some money. They were politically supportive. I and a friend ran for city council in Berkeley, and I won and served from '71 to '73.

I ran on a ticket of two blacks and two whites. We had the support of the students, the street people, women, gays, and antiwar people. But not all of the African-American community, because a part of that community was conservative. They were wary of the street people in Berkeley — people who would come and go, who didn't have a deep stake in the community.

I was viewed as the most outspoken and obstinate politically, but we got a lot done in the area of affirmative action. But the conservatives and moderates targeted me. They initiated a recall in '73 with 18,000 signatures on a petition. Once they got those signatures, I knew pretty much that my goose was cooked, because even though I'm a fighter, numerically it was going to be a tough race to win. The progressive forces didn't have the majority vote. The recall succeeded.

Having been ousted, I thought, What am I gonna do? I had an opportunity to go to Oakland, to work for a prominent attorney. But I had some concerns: Number one, I didn't like the demographics in Oakland. My first priority was to the black community. I was trained and steeped in that mold. Not that I didn't fight for others.

I had a good relationship with the Black Panthers in Oakland. But Huey Newton was a psychopath. A couple times he threatened me simply because he couldn't control me. I didn't want to join the Panthers, but I supported the organization. They were known to be dangerous. So there was that factor: The Black Panthers were run by a man who was not stable.

My politics, my first priority, was the black community, but I needed a stronger black base, and Berkeley was only 20 percent black. San Francisco: 10 percent. The one place I could expect to win was Oakland, and that's where the Panthers were.

So, the long and the short of it: I didn't stay in the Bay Area. I didn't like the time difference. I didn't like the lack of seasons. So I returned to Memphis, and my brother and I opened a practice together in 1974. I worked there for the next 16 years, until I was elected to the court in 1990.

When I came back to Memphis, I knew people were aware of my political experience in California. I knew people thought D'Army's gonna come back all fiery.

Well, Art Gilliam was writing a weekly column for The Commercial Appeal, and when he went to Washington to act as an aide to Representative Harold Ford Sr., I called the editor of the CA and asked if I could do that column. He said I could, and that's what I did, an op-ed piece every week, for the next seven years while I was practicing law. It gave me the opportunity to develop a political perspective on the "public conversation" here in Memphis. People were hungry for it. But it didn't stimulate the preachers. It didn't stimulate the civil rights leaders. It didn't stimulate the young people. People would say right-on, what you're saying is good, we need better opportunities, the black people need to organize more.

But what I did not see, from the time my feet landed back in Memphis, even up to this day, was a momentum for or even the beginnings of a political movement. Everybody was absorbed in who got elected to office. Ford Sr. had just been elected to the U.S. Congress. The euphoria was all around the politics. The only political organization was Ford's, and when he left, there was no organization left.

["The Education of a Black Radical," 1959-1964.]
Roger Easson at Christian Brothers University and I thought we'd got this early part of my memoir written. So we decided to do the books in stages. The next book will cover my time in California. The third book will be about my return to Memphis, including the long and challenging struggle, from 1979 to 1991, to build and open the National Civil Rights Museum.

[The parents; the old neighborhood.]
My mom was a barber who went on to become a nurse. My father was a porter with the railroad. They were not members of the black bourgeoisie, but we lived in a stable, productive, and successful black community near the intersection of Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue.

My friend Earl Bates owns the Four Way Grill, which took in the barber shop where my mother used to cut hair and the pool room where my father shot pool ... I still stop in and talk to Bates and his wife. I like to drive down to Ford Place, the street where I grew up. It's mostly memories now. I see vacant properties and overgrown lots. There's not the community any more ... the life, the vibrancy.

Mississippi Blvd. ... Walker ... across Crump ... Booker T. Washington High School ... the debris and broken glass the school children have to walk through. It's depressing.

["You're a leader. You've always been a leader."]
My mother was by the house a few weeks ago. She was at the breakfast table, and she said, "You're a leader. You've always been a leader. You were chosen, and there's nothing you could've done about it." That reflects the bias that my mother and father had for both of their sons.

But as I look back on my life ... what I did and the things I've done really did come naturally. I didn't set out to be a leader of a protest movement. In high school, yes, I liked being out front, being involved, and I certainly took my share of initiative to propel myself. But in terms of my movement involvement, my political involvement, those were never objectives. They just happened. When I was working as a teenager with the black leaders in Memphis to register the vote, I just did it. Because it made sense. It goes back to my reading national newspapers growing up, of learning what black people were doing in other cities.

I had no thought I was going down to Southern University in Louisiana to get involved in the student protest movement there. But the times happened. The student movement broke out. I was learning new ideas. I had some ideas already. It was an evolutionary process.

[And today.]
I spent 19 years on the court bench, and it was an enjoyable career. I had some wonderful fellowship. But I didn't want the judiciary to put a period on my career. I'm now with the law firm of Wilkes & McHugh, which specializes in nursing-home liability, medical malpractice, and catastrophic injury.

So that's where I am now, and I'm looking to build on that practice.

[The acting life.]
Ah! I just worked with Mike McCarthy on his film Cigarette Girl. It was a pleasant experience and a unique one. I've been onscreen in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Mystery Train, Nothing But the Truth, and now Cigarette Girl, films where I made the final cut.

I enjoy acting. It's hard work. But it's something different for me. Judge Loyce Lambert Ryan called me a Renaissance man. And I've been called that at other times. I say, why not?

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