This story was first published in The Daily Memphian.
A day after President Joe Biden vowed in his inaugural address to defeat white supremacy, Rep. Steve Cohen introduced legislation to remove the name of the late segregationist congressman Clifford Davis from Memphis’ federal building Downtown.
A onetime member of the Ku Klux Klan, Davis died in 1970 when the iconic, 11-story federal building and courthouse overlooking the Mississippi River was named for him.
A bill Cohen introduced Thursday, Jan. 21, would effectively remove Davis’ name and rename the building only for Odell Horton, the first African American judge to sit on the federal bench in Memphis. The names of both Davis and Horton, who died in 2006, have appeared on the building since Cohen ushered a bill through Congress in 2007 adding Horton’s name.
“I was proud to introduce and see passed the bill to add Judge Odell Horton’s name to the Downtown Memphis federal courthouse in 2007. Initially, I had hoped to simply re-name the building for Judge Odell Horton, but the political will to do so was not present at that time,’’ Cohen said in statement Thursday.
“Now, in 2021, it is well past time to rename the building solely for the barrier-breaking jurist and remove the name of Clifford Davis, a one-time Ku Klux Klan member and supporter of Jim Crow laws. While our history is instructive and worthy of study, it is not necessarily worthy of honor.’’
Cohen’s bill will require passage by the House and Senate and approval of Biden to become law. Cohen, a senior member of both the House Judiciary the Transportation and Infrastructure committees, said in his release his bill “is co-sponsored by the entire Tennessee Congressional delegation, including Representatives Tim Burchett, Jim Cooper, Scott DesJarlais, Chuck Fleischmann, Mark Green, Diana Harshbarger, David Kustoff and John Rose.’’
Cohen’s bill follows an in-depth report in November by The Institute for Public Service Reporting that told the long-forgotten story of Davis’ involvement in the Klan as a young man in the 1920s and his oversight of a brutal police department as Memphis police commissioner from 1928 to 1940.
As a congressman representing Memphis from 1940 to 1965, Davis signed the Southern 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. He also voted against the Civil 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.
University of Memphis journalism professor Otis Sanford said he agrees the time has come to remove Davis’ name from the building.
“Clifford Davis’ history in Memphis is nothing to celebrate, particularly on a building that represents equal justice for all citizens. So, I support dropping his name from the federal building,” said Sanford, a Daily Memphian columnist 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.
“It’s also my understanding that his descendants are OK with removing his name. That should make it easier to get it done. “
The Davis family said in November that it favors removing the family patriarch’s name.
“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.”
Family members said Thursday they have nothing more to add.
Cohen’s move comes a day after Biden called to rein in extremism and white supremacy during his nearly 23-minute inaugural speech.
“A cry for racial justice, some 400 years in the making, moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. The cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat,’’ Biden said.
In moving to remove Davis’ name, Cohen praised Horton’s service.
“Judge Horton left a remarkable legacy as the first black federal judge appointed since Reconstruction. Judge Horton served as chief judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee from January 1, 1987 until December 31, 1993,’’ Cohen said of Horton, who also had served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and president of LeMoyne-Owen College before his death at age 76.
Davis’ 45-year public life began in 1920 working as the personal secretary to then-Memphis Mayor Rowlett Paine. He joined the Klan as the terrorist group enjoyed a nationwide resurgence and began openly backing political candidates.
Davis was accused while running for City Court judge in 1923 of helping recruit klansmen into the ranks of the Memphis Police Department. He also gave speeches at fiery klan rallies that year as he won election as judge on the official KKK ticket, becoming the only known klansman ever to hold office in Memphis.
As Police Commissioner starting in 1928, Davis oversaw a police department that openly brutalized African-Americans and labor leaders. Police were suspected of playing a role in the 1937 beating of labor leader Norman Smith, a development that came days after a dire warning from Davis.
“We will not tolerate these foreign agitators in Memphis. We have started today and will free Memphis of these unwanted people,’’ Davis announced. “We know Norman Smith and his whereabouts and will take care of that situation very soon.’’