This article first appeared in The Daily Memphian.
The legend of Clifford Davis echoes through the corridors of Memphis’ federal building like a rebel yell from the city’s segregationist past.
For 50 years, the name of the late congressman and one-time Ku Klux Klan member has clung to the side of this iconic, 11-story office tower overlooking the Mississippi River. His photograph hangs in a glass case in the lobby leading to the courtrooms and government offices.
But now, amid a nationwide reckoning with oppression and inequality, some of Davis’ descendants say the time has come to take his name down.
“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 told opens in a new windowThe Institute for Public Service Reporting 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.”
The name of Horton, the first African American judge to sit on the federal bench here, was added in 2007 following his death a year earlier.
The Davis family’s statement comes as a surprising development to Otis Sanford, a journalism professor at the University of Memphis who wrote a popular history of Memphis politics that covers the period when Davis rose from a mayoral aide in the 1920s to become a city court judge and, later, police commissioner. Davis went on to serve a quarter-century in Congress, from 1940 to 1965.
A traditional view is that Davis was swept into the ranks of the Klan along with millions of other Americans during a post-World War I period of patriotic fervor when many overlooked the Invisible Empire’s terroristic tendencies and confused the organization for a civic-minded secret order.
“He was a very young man at that time,’’ said Sanford, author of “From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics.”
Davis’ documented time in the Klan appears short. A careful examination of his record, however, reveals a pattern of intolerance and oppression over his 45 years in politics replete with hardline Old South views he never disavowed prior to his death in 1970 at age 72.
He was accused of recruiting Klansmen into the Memphis Police Department in the 1920s. As the city’s public safety commissioner from 1928 to 1940, he oversaw a police department known for its openly brutal attacks on African Americans, labor organizers and a range of suspected subversives.
“It was a time of terror,’’ said historian Michael Honey, author of “Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers.”
“He really presided over a disgraceful period as far as the Memphis Police Department was concerned … whether he was still officially in the Klan or not.’’
In Congress, Davis received wide attention for legislation creating the country’s interstate highway system and developing Memphis’ river port at Presidents Island.
Lesser known was his signing of the opens in a new windowSouthern Manifesto, a resolution denouncing the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that found segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.
One of his last acts in Congress involved voting against the opens in a new windowCivil Rights Act of 1964 that banned segregation in public places and prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Though a special city commission now is weighing the renaming of several streets and buildings, removing Davis’ name from the federal building would require approval by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and the president.
Given the deep political polarization that envelopes Washington, that might be a challenge.
Yet U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, who succeeded in adding Horton’s name to the building in 2007, said it’s a challenge he’s prepared to take on after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January.
“I have for some time planned to introduce legislation to name the federal building solely for Judge Horton and my staff has been in that planning process for introduction in the new Congress under the new Biden Administration,’’ Cohen said in a written statement. “It will be a pleasure to see the building named solely for an immortal champion of the law and jurisprudence, Judge Odell Horton.”
Davis joins the Klan
Hooded men guarded a path leading to a large outdoor rally beyond the trees lining what’s now Lamar Avenue. Back then it was known as Pigeon Roost Road, and, according to press accounts, automobiles parked by the many attendees lined both shoulders for more than a mile.
The gathering featured a 30-foot burning cross, speakers from the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s headquarters in Atlanta and the initiation of about 1,000 new members.
It was March 16, 1923, in an open field known as Bethel Grove. The site just south of Memphis’ Orange Mound community would later give rise to Bethel Grove Elementary School where its principal, Willie Herenton, began building a resume in education administration on his way to becoming Memphis’ first elected African American mayor.
The event held that spring by the resurgent Klan was one in a series of rallies, some that featured another controversial speaker: Cliff Davis, then the 25-year-old executive secretary to Memphis Mayor Rowlett Paine.
No record seems to have survived detailing the specifics of Davis’ addresses to the Klan.
But when news later broke about his affiliation to the secretive group it became a major issue in Memphis’ 1923 municipal elections. His boss, Mayor Paine, was widely attacked by opponents seeking to capitalize on anti-Klan sentiment.
“I told the mayor that I had no objections to Cliff’s making a speech to the Klansmen or to his joining the Klan if he cared to,’’ then-City Commissioner Charles R. Shannon told The Commercial Appeal that June as he and other city officials scurried for political cover. “But I did protest against his using the name of the city administration in his speech.’’
Paine denied knowing anything about Davis’ speeches. As the November elections approached and political pressures mounted, Paine fired Davis. The wounded ex-aide then issued a statement.
“… 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.’’
Despite Paine’s public denials, historians believe the mayor recognized the Klan’s growing political influence and courted it.
“Mayor Paine hesitated to alienate this potential bloc of votes, especially when it was rumored they would support him in the upcoming election,’’ Wayne Dowdy wrote in his 2006 book, “Mayor Crump Don’t Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis.”
The Klan had founded a chapter in Memphis in 1921, and by 1923 it was estimated to have 10,000 members.
The organization’s emergence here came as part of a nationwide rebirth of the Klan first formed by Confederate veterans as an underground resistance movement opposing Reconstruction following the Civil War. The loosely organized vigilante organization had become so violent leaders disbanded it, but it was revived following D.W. Griffith’s epic 1915 silent motion picture, Birth of a Nation.
An estimated 2 million to 4 million Americans joined in the 1920s. The political might of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was said to have helped elect 16 U.S. senators and nine state governors. Pressure to join was intense.
“In the 1920s, fraternal organizations were in their heyday,’’ historian Jerry L. Wallace wrote in a blog for the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. “The Klan took its place alongside the Masons, Owls, Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows, Pythians, United Workmen, Knights of Columbus, Independent Order of B’rith Sholom, among others, and was treated as one of them.’’
Among those who paid the $10 membership fee was future president Harry Truman, then a little-known Missouri politician drawn to the organization’s patriotic overtures. He soon quit, however, after learning of its anti-Catholic leanings. Though the Klan often cloaked itself in good deeds, including making financial contributions to churches and charitable organizations, its open bias toward Jews, Catholics, African Americans and a range of immigrants was a hallmark.
In Memphis, The Commercial Appeal wrote extensively about the Klan’s acts of violence in the region and unloaded a barrage of criticism when the secret order emerged as a political force.
Mayor Paine sought to distance himself from those criticisms by firing Davis but the move backfired on him in part. The Klan sponsored a slate of candidates, including Davis, a lawyer, who ran for city court judge. Davis was the sole KKK candidate to win. His victory made him “the only avowed Klan member to ever win elective office in Memphis,’’ Dowdy wrote.
The depth of Davis’ involvement with the Klan remains clouded. He eventually joined forces with Memphis political boss Edward Hull Crump, a staunch Klan opponent.
“While he may not have completely repudiated the Klan, he got away from them,’’ said journalist Sanford, who serves on The Institute’s advisory board and writes a regular column for The Daily Memphian.
The Institute examined collections at the Ned R. McWherter Library at the University of Memphis and the City of Memphis’ Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and found numbers of archived news articles chronicling the Klan in the 1920s, but few original documents detailing Davis’ involvement in it.
One record – a crumbling 1923 letter from T.S. Ward, Grand Dragon of the Klan’s Realm of Mississippi – suggests Davis was more than just a rank-and-file member.
The letter states that Davis and three other leading “klansmen’’ had been selected to serve on the board of directors of a Memphis-based daily newspaper the Klan planned to launch and operate. The newspaper never got off the ground.
With Crump’s backing, Davis was elected Memphis public safety commissioner in 1927. With the victory, he gained control of the Memphis Police Department.
“He didn’t talk about the Klan very much (anymore) but that period of time when he was basically running law and order in Memphis was a shameful disgrace,’’ said Honey, a professor at the University of Washington-Tacoma and a former Memphis resident who’s written several books exploring or touching on oppression in the Bluff City.
Policing under Davis grew especially brutal, Honey said. Political opponents had charged during the 1923 campaign that Davis helped recruit Klansmen into city government and that 70 percent of the police department’s officers were members of the Klan.
The all-white police force was known for extreme violence during the Great Depression, a reputation fueled in the African-American community by accounts like the 1933 beating of a Black youth whose neck, one witness said, was snapped “like a chicken neck.’’
In “Southern Labor,” Honey details several incidents of violence against labor union organizers, including the 1939 police abduction of Thomas Watkins, a Black dockworker who was beaten in a warehouse but escaped into the river and fled Memphis never to return again. Justice Department records show the FBI investigated the incident but brought no charges.
Memphis government and business leaders were intensely hostile toward organized labor during the 1930s, and Davis’ police often acted as their agents. When the Congress of Industrial Organizations attempted to organize workers at the Ford Motor Plant here in 1937, then-Mayor Watkins Overton decried the organizers as “un-American’’ Communist agitators stirring “strife and conflict.’’
Davis launched an investigation of the labor organizers.
“We will not tolerate these foreign agitators in Memphis. We have started today and will free Memphis of these unwanted people,’’ Davis announced.
He focused special attention on United Auto Workers organizer Norman Smith, saying, “We know Norman Smith and his whereabouts and will take care of that situation very soon.’’
News accounts reported Smith was beaten the following day by a mob wielding bottles and wire cables. The American Civil Liberties Union alleged police participation in the attack, yet no one was charged.
Hand-picked by Crump to succeed Rep. Walter Chandler, who resigned from Congress to become Memphis mayor, Davis was elected in 1940 to represent Shelby County in Washington. A Democrat, he would go on to serve 12 terms.
In Congress, Davis was instrumental in securing key military installations here. He co-sponsored the Federal-Aid Highway Act that led to construction of the country’s interstate highway system and shepherded legislation that helped the Tennessee Valley Authority increase production of electricity.
Davis was wounded along with four other congressmen in 1954 when Puerto Rican nationalists armed with pistols opened fire from the balcony during a session of the House of Representatives. Shot in the leg, he soon recovered.
He was among 82 representatives and 19 senators in 1956 who signed the Declaration of Constitutional Principles, better known as the Southern Manifesto, opposing the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision declaring as unconstitutional the separate schooling of black and white children. The Manifesto urged Southerners to use all “lawful means’’ to resist the ruling.
Davis was among 126 representatives who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the House’s final floor vote that July.
He left office the following January after losing the Democratic primary to George Grider.
Following Davis’ death in June 1970, then-Rep. Dan Kuykendall successfully sponsored a bill to name the federal building in Memphis for the 12-term congressman.
Rep. Cohen said he had intended to remove Davis’s name back in 2007 when he successfully sponsored legislation adding the name of Judge Horton, who had died in 2006 at age 77.
“While I had hoped to simply re-name the bill only for Judge Odell Horton, the political will to do so was not present at that time,’’ Cohen said in his statement. “The chair of the committee of jurisdiction had worked with Congressman Clifford Davis, for whom the federal building was named in 1970, which would likely have doomed naming the building for Judge Horton if that meant removing Davis’ name.’’
But Cohen now is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has a subcommittee with jurisdiction over renaming federal buildings.
Nothing is guaranteed, however.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia, has been trying to rename FBI headquarters in Washington by removing the name of J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau’s longtime director who ran secret “dirty tricks’’ operations against a range of activists and civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Connolly also advocates renaming federal buildings, including one in Alabama named for Confederate assistant secretary of war John A. Campbell and others in South Carolina and Georgia named for segregationist senators Strom Thurmond and Richard B. Russell.
“The federal government must be a beacon of inclusivity. Having federal buildings named after Confederate generals and members of the KKK is shameful and they must be renamed,” Connolly said in a statement issued through a spokesman.
Though the overlooked Davis has not generated the degree of controversy that better-known historical figures have, journalism professor Sanford said the changing times may make keeping the late congressman’s name on the federal building indefensible.
“There is nothing written in stone that says that buildings and streets and parks have to keep the same name forever and a day. Things change, societies change, culture changes, the sentiments of a community change,’’ Sanford said. “And so I see nothing wrong with a community deciding that whatever was done years ago has to stay that way.’’