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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


Bill Passes to Remove Klansman’s Name From Federal building

IPSR investigation leads to House vote to remove Clifford Davis’ name; bill now goes to Senate

The U.S. House voted 422-2 to remove the name of the late congressman and one-time klansman Clifford Davis from Memphis’ federal building. (Tom Bailey/Daily Memphian file)

The U.S. House has passed a bill to remove the name of the late congressman and one-time klansman Clifford Davis from Memphis’ federal building.

The bipartisan bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis passed Thursday, Nov. 4, on a 422-2 vote and is now on its way to the Senate. The bill had been dormant for more than seven months amid Washington’s political gridlock following approval in March by the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

If H.R. 390 passes there, President Joe Biden is expected to sign it, renaming the iconic 11-story courthouse and office building solely for Odell Horton, the first African-American judge to sit on the federal bench in Memphis. Horton’s name was added to the building alongside Davis’ name in 2007 following another bill by Cohen.

“I had initially hoped to simply rename the building for Judge Horton, but the political will to do that was not present at that time,’’ Cohen said from the House floor before the vote. “And I call it the Clifford Davis, Odell Horton building. Now, here we are in 2021, and the political will is present.”

The renewed effort follows an in-depth report last year by the Institute for Public Service Reporting exploring Davis’ career and his long-forgotten ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

Davis successfully ran for Memphis city court judge on the official KKK ticket in 1923 and was active in the white supremacist terrorist group, giving fiery speeches to the growing throngs of klansmen that plagued the city at the time.

He died in 1970 at age 72. He’d been a Memphis judge and police commissioner before serving 12 terms in Congress between 1940 and 1965.

The Davis family called for his name to be removed from the federal building after the death of George Floyd in 2020 led to a wave of protests that swept across the country.

“We are proud of Cliff Davis’ many contributions to Memphis, but his membership in the Klan and support for Jim Crow cannot be excused,’’ family members said then in a written statement issued through Davis’ great-grandson, Owen Hooks Davis.

“The current reckoning with our nation’s enduring history of racism is long overdue, and we support renaming the Clifford Davis-Odell Horton Federal Building to bear Horton’s name alone.”

Otis Sanford, a journalism professor at the University of Memphis who wrote “From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics,” said Wednesday the move to remove Davis’ name from the building is a “progressive one.”

“It recognizes the sort of ugliness of our past and is an effort to try to rectify that obviousness,” Sanford said. Sanford serves on The Institute’s board of advisers.

During his floor speech, Cohen said he agreed with the family and that it was time for the federal building to represent the political and moral changes now present in the public square since Davis’s time in office.

“I completely agree and believe it’s time to assure that all of Memphis can look with pride and respect at their federal building and have it named for this great jurist who served in that federal building,” Cohen said. “Judge Horton left a remarkable legacy as the first black federal judge appointed since Reconstruction. … He was a man of honor who dedicated his life to public service for the betterment of West Tennessee. He broke down racial barriers and served the judicial system well. He has long deserved this individual distinction.”

Davis’ foray into politics began in the office of Memphis Mayor Rowlett Paine where the young klansman served as Paine’s secretary.

He also allegedly urged members of the Memphis Police Department to join the klan. By 1923, it was alleged that as many as 70% of Memphis officers were klan members.

Clifford Davis in 1939.  (Preservation and Special Collections Department, University of Memphis Libraries-Commercial Appeal collection)

Under political pressure, Paine eventually fired Davis, who responded publicly with one of the few surviving quotes documenting his association with the klan.

“… I have never done anything without the full knowledge and consent of Mr. Paine,’’ Davis said. “The mayor well knew that I made speeches at the Ku Klux meetings at Bethel Grove several months ago … . He evidenced no disapproval of it until recently when he began to figure on his reelection.’’

The fate of H.R. 390 remains uncertain in the Senate, where gridlock has dominated in recent months.

But Sanford said the time is ripe for change.

“Nobody has an absolute right to have their name on any building,” Sanford said. “That’s not a right, and it is not a right that things should stay in perpetuity.”

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