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Remembering The Civil Rights Activist Who Turned A Motel Into A Museum

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. D'Army Bailey founded the museum in 1991. (Sean Davis/Flickr)
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. D'Army Bailey founded the museum in 1991. (Sean Davis/Flickr)

D’Army Bailey, a civil rights activist, author and judge will be buried tomorrow in Memphis. He died Sunday at age 73.

Bailey is probably best remembered as the founder of the National Civil Rights Museum at the site of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated in 1968.

Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti talks with  Terri Lee Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum, about Bailey’s life and legacy.

Interview Highlights: Terri Lee Freeman

How Bailey helped purchase the Lorraine Motel property

“It was getting ready to be sold at a foreclosure sale on the steps of the Shelby County Courthouse, and he was able to raise the necessary capital to be able purchase the building. He was very aware of the historic significance of the Lorraine Motel, even prior to Dr. King’s assassination at that spot. But it was a black-owned institution, and it was a place where a lot of black dignitaries and celebrities would stay when they would come to Memphis. It was a place where they were comfortable, were able to sleep overnight without having any issues, as well as eat at the motel. So it was a well-established institution in the Memphis community for the black community, and he felt very strongly that it was important to save this historic landmark.”

“He was one that you might consider to be a Renaissance man. He was a leader from very early on.”

Who was D’Army Bailey?

“He was one that you might consider to be a Renaissance man. He was a leader from very early on, he was the class president in high school, he was the president of a social club for young men called The Counts, he also led a radio show when he was in high school, and when he went on to Southern University he became president of his freshman class. He was truly a leader, it was just inherent in him. But he also had been raised to believe in what was right. And from his own words, he said that while he grew up in a community that was segregated, it really didn’t feel that way, and he didn’t really feel oppressed, if you will. Until he had the experience of going on to Louisiana and actually being denied the ability to eat in certain places and go to certain places, that is really when the civil rights activism came out in Judge Bailey.”

The future of the National Civil Rights Museum

“The mission of the museum really is to be an education tool and to preserve and chronicle the stories of the ordinary people, frankly, who did extraordinary things, like D’Army Bailey, during the civil rights years, the height of the civil rights movement. The hope is that as we move forward, we can actually be a very active entity and not just a museum that talks about the history, but one that promotes action and inspires people to do more.”

Guest

  • Terri Lee Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. She tweets @TerriLeeFreeman.

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