I am told I was born in 1941 in a little shotgun house in South Memphis, and shortly after we moved to a duplex on Ford Place, the street where I grew up in the late 1940s and ‘50s. In those days, black Memphis was a separate and isolated society. I didn’t realize at the time that I lived in a white-dominated world. Our small, black world sat within a three-block radius of LeMoyne College.
We later moved three houses up to a nicer duplex that my grandfather — D.A. Bailey — built for us. My brother, Walter, and I called him Papa; friends and family called him Knox. Papa held a prominent place in our community as a builder and entrepreneur. He was a compassionate person and always fair-minded.
My grandfather’s small variety store, Bailey’s Stand, was the epicenter of my world. At the center of the back of the store was a waist-high, wood-burning stove where neighborhood men gathered to talk. My sense of community was forged there.
My father opened the world to me and my brother, taking us with him during his railroad travels as a Pullman porter, taking us to professional baseball games. We were in the crowds in St. Louis and Chicago to see Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe — players who had first broken the color barrier. These trips liberated me geographically, taught me how to navigate the nation, and made me a larger person than just another Memphis Negro whose horizons stopped at the city’s riverbanks.
My mother, Will-Ella — called Bill by my father and others — gave me the kind of structured maturity that became so necessary to my ability to grow, even in adversity. Mama taught us to do things for ourselves at a very young age: how to think for ourselves and how to make our own decisions. She allowed us a great deal of freedom to go our own way because she trusted we’d make good decisions. She taught us self-respect and to always show respect to others. In general, we were accepted for who we were — no matter what we were about. And Mama’s still that way.
In the private school that I attended from kindergarten to fourth grade, we opened every class by singing the Negro national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," written by James Weldon Johnson. We studied historic black figures and were taught race pride, but not in a wear-it-on-your-shoulders way. Black people have always needed race pride because, historically, the world outside tells us we’re second-class and that we’re not as good as the white person — and it tells us that in many ways. Those who taught us and nurtured us sought to combat that by instilling in us a sense of how much our people have accomplished.
So by the time I was thrust into the real world of racial discrimination, my initial reaction was confusion.
But I knew from the time I was young that life held a lot of potential for me, and that there were wonderful opportunities ahead — yet I never really thought about a professional career or what I wanted to do in life.
In high school, I worked at Peoples Drug Store, owned by one of Memphis’s two black pharmacists, Dr. William Pippin. Working at the drugstore opened another new world to me. A big, circular wire news rack at the front of the store carried newspapers and magazines that covered black affairs around the country — including detailed coverage of the Civil Rights Movement sweeping the nation. I’d pass the time reading these publications, and they propelled me into the midst of the racially motivated lynching of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, and the black students my age integrating Central High School in Little Rock. This was probably the first spark — man’s inhumanity to man — that would later ignite my journey as a civil rights activist.
During that time, I also wrote columns for the local black newspapers and landed a guest disc jockey position at WLOK, where I hosted a 15-minute show, "Teenage Roundup," three days a week. I started coming in contact with influential blacks who were important in the civil rights struggle. They showed an interest in me, and I began my political education.
I became active with the NAACP, and, at the same time, I campaigned for the Shelby County Democratic Club, an influential political action organization that worked closely with the NAACP to support black candidates and pro-integration white candidates. This involvement with black politics increased my awareness of my leadership abilities and of my value as a human being.
I attended Southern University at Baton Rouge, the nation’s largest historically black university, where I became heavily, personally involved in the fight against segregation — joining sit-ins, picketing, leading marches, and helping organize class boycotts. A detailed account of those years is contained in my book, The Education of a Black Radical: A Southern Civil Rights Activist’s Journey, 1959–1964.
After I was expelled from Southern, I went to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to finish my undergraduate studies, and I continued in my activism. I helped organize and became director of the Worcester Student Movement — which tutored students from the city’s low-income neighborhoods — picketed against a department store for not employing blacks, and organized demonstrations against a city manufacturing company.
During my law school years at Yale, I became involved with the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, which — along with chapters at major law schools across the country — helped educate law students about racial problems and recruited them to do civil rights–related legal work in the South during the summers. When I came out of Yale in 1967, I was selected to a one-year term as national director of this organization.
Following this, I accepted a job offer in San Francisco, but after I started asking questions about the central office operations — its main leadership was white — and why blacks and Hispanics weren’t getting a fair shake, I was fired.
In 1971, I decided to run for the Berkeley City Council and won a spot on an interracial, progressive coalition ticket, which won against divided conservative opposition. The day after the election, the conservatives vowed a recall election against the three of us who won, but over the next two and a half years, they narrowed their focus to me. From the beginning, I made it clear that my first priority would be the interest of the black community. I collided with some of the white leftists, who said I was too radical. The conservatives thought I was a horror. The council forced a recall vote and got rid of me.
After the recall, I moved back to Memphis in 1974.
I opened a law practice with my brother, Walter Lee Bailey Jr., and was elected as Circuit Court judge in 1990. After I retired from the bench in 2009, I became a member of the national civil litigation law firm of Wilkes & McHugh P.A., where I practice law today.
Fighting for civil rights and equality has been a lifelong passion and mission. As an activist, I devoted many years of my life to it. As an attorney, I defended the poor and disenfranchised. As an author, I’ve tried to bring insights into issues that concern us all. As a person, I bring my experience of revolution and counterrevolution, sharpened by my love of the law and justice.
I first realized blacks and whites weren’t treated equally … when I was a young boy at my grandfather’s sundries store. When products — milk, soda pop, bakery items — were delivered to the store, the white man rode in the passenger side of the truck, transacted the business, and collected the money. The black man drove the truck, unloaded it, and carried the items into the store.
The first time I was blatantly discriminated against … was when I was in high school and got fired from John Gaston Hospital. I was an orderly, and the job paid well — $40 a week. I worked the 3–11 shift, and my job was the garbage wagon. The wagon had three trash receptacles in it. I rolled the wagon through the halls, stopped at each ward, emptied the trash, and then burned the trash in the incinerator out back. My white supervisor told me that I needed to stop my wagon closer to the walls — it was sticking too far out into the halls. I spoke up for myself — not in a disrespectful way — and told her I was doing the best I could with so many wards to cover. There was no benefit for me to be blatantly disrespectful because it was a good job. But she didn’t like what I said, and she fired me. I wasn’t so much angry as I was determined. I understood what was going on, and I learned a hard lesson.
The time I was most afraid … The day in 1961 when several thousand of us marched to the courthouse in downtown Baton Rouge. The police broke up our rally with tear gas and police dogs, and that was a fearful time because it was so unexpected and rough.
Getting sprayed with tear gas feels like … Physically, it’s nauseating. It burns your skin, and your eyes are running and burning. It has a very sharp, pungent, gas-like smell that stays on you, even after you’ve left the area. It gets in your clothes and stays there — as if a skunk has sprayed you. When the students regrouped in the church near campus, the entire church smelled of tear gas. It also infuriates you that someone would do that to you. It’s a very rough, violent weapon. It makes you mad as hell.
I kept fear from derailing our fight by … I felt relatively safe on campus, and at times, campus police escorted the students. Also, the community was supportive of what we were doing. Many of our students and faculty were supporting us. And though they may not have participated in our struggle, they were aware of it and wanted it to succeed. It’s that sense of support that gives you a sense of protection and safety.
I kept anger in check by … We were mostly young college students. We felt privileged to be in college. We were trained to our mission and to restraining ourselves. Anger would have been counterproductive to our strategies. We were disciplined, like soldiers in a military campaign. We knew our mission and kept ourselves prepared to move forward with it. We remained clearheaded and focused. When we had our strategy meetings at night, we may have expressed anger among ourselves — and we sometimes had heated disagreements on strategy — but that wasn’t often. But when we left the room to go forth and carry out a particular mission, we were not angry; we were determined.
I didn’t pursue a career in journalism because … journalists are news reporters, and I wanted to be a news <<maker>>. Typically, journalists report on things, and I wanted to influence things. I didn’t see myself in a field where someone else is making all the decisions for me and telling me what to do. I wanted to have a voice.
My first name … I am named after my grandfather, D.A., who supposedly was given his name by a Mississippi midwife. His name was pronounced like mine — Dee-Army — but it was spelled Darmy, and so was mine. I struggled with people not pronouncing my name correctly, so in the 11th grade, I added the apostrophe, uppercased the A, and became D’Army.
The trait I got from my grandfather … His industriousness. Papa always worked and knew how to make a dollar. I had a conversation some years ago with FedEx founder Fred Smith, and he said, "The way to make money is not to go out to make money but to find the service that people need, fill that need, and you’ll make money." My grandfather was that kind of person, too.
From my father I got … Daddy was very outgoing and always liked to interact with people. He liked to have a good time, too, and he had a knack for the finer things in life, whether it was his home, his clothing, or his vehicle. He always tried to have the best that his hard-earned money could afford. He played in checker tournaments and shot pool, but he also worked very hard. He had to carve his own niche in the tracks of a very industrious father.
From my mother, I got … diligence. She has an inner strength that gives her the ability to accept challenges and make the best of them. Mama has a very strong sense of goals and achievement —not in the aggressive, advocacy sense, but more in a quiet sense. She was always calm, thoughtful, analytical. And she had an elegant personality.
When I was growing up, the Lorraine Motel … was owned by a Mr. Walter Bailey. People frequently thought that <<my>> family owned the Lorraine because Daddy and Mr. Bailey had the same name. Mr. Bailey at the Lorraine told me that the way my father got his job at the railroad was that the railroad called Daddy’s house — instead of Mr. Bailey’s — and when the caller asked for Walter Bailey, my father said, "This is he." The caller said, "Are you ready to come work for the railroad?" My father said, "Well, I didn’t apply for a job at the railroad." The man said, "You’re Walter Bailey, ain’t you? Do you want the job or don’t you?" That’s Mr. Bailey’s version, anyway.
The lesson I learned in high school … Blair T. Hunt was our principal at Booker T. Washington. He used to tell the students, "You are somebody." Ben Hooks, who gave the baccalaureate speech at my high school graduation, said, "If you can take it, you can make it."
In the ‘50s, my mother wouldn’t … take us into department stores to eat because we weren’t allowed to sit down. She refused to have us stand up and eat because, "We aren’t mules." It was more the example she set than the conversation that made a difference in me.
One early lesson I learned … was that as a black, I was in a weak position when it came to living in a white world. I realized I must be prepared for it and not feel bad for myself, but rather I should allow it to reinforce my determination to carry my protest as far as I can carry it — until the door gets completely sealed and I can’t go any farther.
Malcolm X … I met him when I was director of the Worcester Student Movement at Clark University. I invited him to be a guest speaker on campus. My first impression was by telephone. I was awed that I could pick up a phone, dial his number, and have Malcolm X himself answer the phone. I was impressed by his easy availability. He was a roll-up-your-sleeves servant, and he treated me as an equal. When some of the people of Worcester objected to him speaking without a countervailing point of view, I relayed that to Malcolm. He was partly bemused and said, "All right, if they want another point of view, get Martin Luther King in town." Malcolm always stayed in control of the situation. You throw something at him, and he’s going to throw it right back at you — with a smile.
I met Dr. King … when he spoke at a campus gymnasium in Worcester, while I was at Clark University. After his speech, I made my way down to the floor, where he was talking to some people. I introduced myself and told him I was from Memphis. That brought a spark of interest to his eye. We made small talk, and he was just this Southern, educated minister who had been catapulted into fame and leadership. And that was my one and only time to meet Dr. King.
When Dr. King was assassinated … It was late in the evening, April 4, 1968, and I was in my office in New York City, where I was running a national organization of law students. I had sent 10 law students to Memphis to assist the lawyers who were representing the sanitation strikers. I had a flight to Memphis the next morning to check in on the law students and participate in the march scheduled that Monday. My secretary came into my office and said, "Dr. King has been shot in Memphis." I was stunned, of course, and I just sat there, waiting to hear more. Later, she came back in and told me he had died. Within a matter of 10 minutes we were on Fifth Avenue, hailing a taxi for my secretary. I took the subway to Grand Central Station. The station was full of people, but no one was saying anything. It was eerily quiet. Back at my apartment, I listened to the radio, and news was coming in about the violence taking place all over the country. The next day, I took a plane to Memphis. As my brother and I drove from the airport, everything was quiet because the city was under curfew. National guards were positioned throughout the city.
The number of times I’ve been in jail … I spent two nights at the juvenile detention center in Memphis — once because my buddy cussed out a white lady, and once because I scraped a parked car and kept driving. In "real jail," it was only once. I was arrested July 4, 1963. I came very close a few other times, but that one time was it.
After they closed my jail cell’s door, I first thought … How soon will it be before I get out? There was a lot of uncertainty, but there were also 200 people arrested with me. We were released about 24 hours later, but it sure seemed a lot longer than that. We didn’t know what was going on or what was going to happen.
I felt doubt about what I was doing … the night I had to call home and tell my mother that I’d been expelled from Southern. I felt unsteady, but there was no lack of determination. I suppose if my parents had been condemning or unsupportive at that delicate time, my spirits probably would have been much more difficult to maintain. That was one of my toughest times.
The incident that really tore at my heart … was when I was sitting at the table with Allison Turaj, her head covered with a bloody bandage. I’d hired Allison — a young, white organizer — to help us recruit low-income junior high and high school students in Washington to participate in a summer tutorial project. She’d been injured during a large protest we held at the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, which promoted itself as "Maryland’s Favorite Family Playground." But blacks were not allowed to set foot in the park. Allison had always been strong, but she had tears about what had happened that day, and that had an emotional impact on me. The other time was in 1965 on my way to join the Meredith march in Jackson, Mississippi. I stopped at a gas station to use the restroom. The attendant took me to the back of the building and pointed to the ground. "Go there, and when you get through, take the shovel and cover it up."
I intentionally caused trouble by … I’d take the bus by myself, riding through Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana — and I’d sit down in the white section.
The biggest emotional injury I received … is one I suffered then and suffer now: when your own people fail to stand up for you or, worse, pull the rug out from underneath you.
I met my wife … in 1976, two years after I moved back to Memphis from Berkeley. Adrienne was an area representative for Flori Roberts cosmetics company. She was visiting her girlfriend in Memphis, and her girlfriend had come into my law office for an appointment with Otis Higgs, one of the other lawyers. The friend had left her jacket in the office, so she and Adrienne came back to get it. I was sitting in the conference room with Walter and Otis. I turned around and saw this gorgeous woman walk into the office. I asked her for a date, and we were married within six months. Today, Adrienne is the CEO and president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis.
My children … Justin also graduated from Clark University and is an assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division in Memphis. Merritt is a rap musician and bartender at Applebee’s on Union.
The difference between the civil rights fight then and the fight today … Today, we have fewer soldiers. Most of our troops have deserted the fight. We don’t have people who are committed to this struggle like we used to. Part of the reason is that today’s youth don’t understand the urgency of fighting back. The fact that black people today can get decent jobs with decent salaries, live in decent homes — that has produced people who sit at the table quietly, such as politicians. We won the right to have black politicians, but few see themselves apart from the political system. Many are dedicated to race, but they’re not dedicated to the sacrifice of their own career to take the struggle as far as it needs to go. When your troops are depleted — the Civil Rights Movement was built on the aspirations of young black kids to fight for a better life for themselves. Too many of today’s generation of blacks have given up. They’re into distractions. They don’t confront the harsh reality it takes to make a difference.
The three top injustices blacks need to fight for today … 1. Poverty and lack of resources to help educate, train, and prepare us to continue our advancement to equality. 2. A self-destructive culture of having babies without an agenda to raise and train them properly — or even be responsible for them. This reinforces whites to view themselves as the privileged, superior, and deserving class. 3. Racism. We still have that fight.
The hardest part of making the National Civil Rights Museum a reality … In 1983 — 14 years after Dr. King’s assassination — I began my efforts to preserve the Lorraine Motel, and in 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum opened. But the single most difficult part was raising enough money to gain property control — to buy that property for $144,000 on the courthouse steps at the foreclosure auction. Rev. James Smith and his AFSCME union donated $25,000. Only two white people gave us money of any consequence during that critical phase: Paul Shapiro, head of Lucky Heart Cosmetics, gave us $10,000 — the biggest single contribution from any white person; and Jack Belz of Belz Enterprises gave us three contributions — including the shortfall of $4,000 needed after bidding $144,000 at the auction. If we had lost that struggle to buy the property, there would be no museum.
When I’m not being Mr. Activist/Attorney, I like to … dance! Adrienne and I get out on the floor with the young folks and learn whatever new dances they show us.
My final 2 cents … The message that I send to the generations yet to come is this: It looks difficult, and sometimes it looks impossible, but it ain’t.