Along with the sadness that came with our learning on Sunday that the great D'Army Bailey had died of cancer was, first, surprise, because the eminent lawyer/actor/author who was elected a Circuit Court judge last year for
the second time in his life, had been an active presence in the world right up until the end — participating, for example, in a spirited forum in April at the University of Memphis law school on the subject of the 1968 sanitation strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But, after we had digested the reality of Judge Bailey's passing, another more soothing thought occurred to us: If there was one factor that motivated D'Army Bailey in life, it was the twin pursuit of equality and justice, qualities that fused into a single idea in his mind, and in the mind, also, of his brother Walter, a longtime county commissioner — the two of them forming a tandem over the years dedicated to the eradication of every vestige of discrimination in either the private or the public sphere.
We took some satisfaction, then, that before he died, D'Army Bailey had seen the beginnings of final success for a cause that was important to him, and which was a continuing preoccupation for his brother Walter — the de-sanctification, as it were, of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest as a symbol of the racist past. Bailey had to know that the Memphis City Council had voted unanimously to remove the statue of Forrest on horseback from a park that no longer bore his name.
D'Army Bailey was a gentle, sensitive man, at home in any company, though his pursuit of justice had forever embroiled him in controversy. A graduate of Booker T. Washington and Clark College, Bailey migrated after graduation from Yale Law School to the San Francisco area, a hotbed of revolutionary ideas in the 1970s. Once there, he pitched into the ferment, got himself quickly elected to the Berkeley City Council and almost as quickly was subjected to a recall election that forced him out. He returned to Memphis to practice law with his brother, but the zeal to pursue human justice was still with him, and, in the course of time, that zeal became the energy that allowed him to midwife into being the National Civil Rights Museum on the Lorraine Motel site of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.
Though he had ample helpers, both in and out of government, the museum was his idea, his creation, and it will be his monument to the world.
He also left for posterity two books on civil rights and charming, credible appearances in several movies, including The People vs. Larry Flynt, which was filmed here in Memphis, so we will still have traces of him in action to cherish.