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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


President Biden Removes Klansman’s Name From Memphis’ Federal Building

IPSR investigation leads to renaming of courthouse and office complex

Odell Horton Jr. stands outside the federal building named for his father and Clifford Davis, a former congressman and one-time member of the Ku Klux Klan. A bill signed by President Biden on Dec. 21 renames the building solely for Odell Horton Sr. (Ben Wheeler/Institute for Public Service Reporting)

Odell Horton Jr. was in court earlier this fall at the downtown federal building emblazoned with his father’s name when he saw a portrait of him on the wall.

“A lot of memories just came flooding back,” said Horton, who, like his father before him, is a Memphis attorney. “It was just this great moment knowing that all his hard work had really paid off.”

The late Odell Horton Sr. shared the name of the building for several years with another former Memphian, but now President Joe Biden has made it official: Horton’s name will appear on the building alone. Biden signed a bill Tuesday, Dec. 21, that removes late congressman and one-time Ku Klux Klan member Clifford Davis’ name from Memphis’ federal building.

After serving as a federal bankruptcy judge, Horton was nominated by then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and confirmed by the Senate for the U.S. District Court, serving 17 years before retiring in 1997. He died in 2006 at age 77.

Horton Jr. said the family was excited when his name was added to the federal building in 2007, but this is an even greater honor.

“My brother Chris and I are just really pleased, and we obviously want to thank Congressman Cohen and the Tennessee Delegation,” Horton Jr. said. “It’s something that we think our father was well-deserved of and I know he would always say that it wasn’t just him, but it was also our mother that allowed him to do all he was able to do.”

The bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, passed both the House and the Senate with almost no dissent before landing on President Biden’s desk this week. The bill had been dormant for months before its passing.

The renewed interest in passing the bill follows an in-depth investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting last year into Davis’ career and his 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 organization, which was prevalent in the city at the time.

Davis was accused of recruiting Klan members to join Memphis’ notoriously brutal police department in the 1920s. By 1923, it was alleged that as many as 70% of the police force were Klan members.

Memphis isn’t alone when it comes to federal buildings named for leaders associated with white supremacy. Government Executive digital magazine reported last year that there are at least 12 federal buildings named after officials with racist pasts, as well as a number of college buildings across the country that have faced criticism for their namesake’s past.

“It is time to remove the name of a segregationist and Klansman from this place of honor and fully recognize Judge Horton’s life of public service and contributions to Memphis,’’ Cohen said in a statement Tuesday following President Biden’s signing of his bill. “This is a victory for justice, a milestone in our city’s history and a sign that Memphis is embracing the legacy of a great man.”

Davis worked as a Memphis judge and police commissioner before serving 12 terms in Congress. He died in 1970 at age 72. The Davis family had called for his name to be removed from the building following the death of George Floyd.

“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 The Institute for Public Service Reporting in a written statement issued through Davis’ great-grandson, Owen Hooks Davis, last year. 

Horton was known for his deliberate and gentle courtroom style, traits that served him well while refereeing contentious legal battles including his best-known case, the 1990 fraud trial of Congressman Harold Ford Sr. Ford was accused of taking more than $1 million in fraudulent loans.

Odell Horton, left, poses in 1974 with Memphis car dealer John T. Fisher, Dorothy Lawson and civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson. (Courtesy Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Memphis – Press Scimitar Collection)

Ford was highly critical of Horton and the case ended up in a mistrial, with allegations of juror misconduct never proven. Ford was later acquitted in a retrial. In Horton’s 2006 obituary in The Commercial Appeal, former U.S. District Judge Harry Wellford was quoted as saying Horton never complained once during the notorious trial.

“He … was determined he was going to do his best for justice no matter what,” Wellford said then.

Written By

Ben Wheeler is an investigative reporter for the Daily Memphian. He previously served as an intern for the Institute for Public Service Reporting and has worked at the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan in South Dakota and the Herald-Citizen in Cookeville, Tennessee.

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