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Finishing the final chapter of Memphis and the Ku Klux Klan

Hello Mountain Home,

It’s been a while since we caught up. Earlier this week, I was invited to attend the federal ceremony for the official renaming of the Clifford Davis/Ordell Horton Federal Building in downtown Memphis next week.

Because of this, next Tuesday will be a light news day here at the Observer since I’ll be traveling for most of the day.

For those who don’t know, I grew up in Memphis. I also started my journalism career there.  It’s a special place to me, and while I know that Memphis news showing up in Mountain Home newspapers causes eyes to glaze over, I’d still like to share the background for the ceremony I’m attending.

In the fall of 2020, while working for the Institute for Public Service Reporting, I was tasked with looking into the life of a Democratic Congressman named Clifford Davis. At the time, the Memphis community, much like the rest of the country, was heavily involved in the debate over taking down statues and monuments following that year’s nationwide, summer-long riot.

Memphis is home to several Confederate monuments that were ultimately taken down. Yet, Davis’s name continued to be glanced over despite being plastered to the side of the city’s federal building.

For 50 years, the name of the late congressman and one-time Ku Klux Klan member clung to the side of this iconic, 11-story office tower overlooking the Mississippi River. His photograph still hangs in a glass case in the lobby leading to the courtrooms and government offices.

There had always been some speculation on how involved Davis was with the Klan during the 1920s, but his popularity as a Congressman, and his ties to Memphis’s elites, always resulted in a blind eye being turned when the topic came up.

With that in mind, I spent several months diving deep into his records, uncovering documents that showed that he was a high-ranking member of the Klan’s Memphis chapter.

Davis’ documented time in the Klan appears short, spanning a few short years before the chapter ultimately fizzled out. 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.

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 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.

One of his last acts in Congress involved voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public places and prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Following the revelations of the Institute’s article, every Congressional Representative in Tennessee, both Republican and Democrat, signed on to House Resolution 390, which removed Davis’s name from Memphis’s Federal building.

H.R. 390 ultimately passed through both the House and the Senate before being signed by President Joe Biden earlier this year. His name will officially be replaced by Federal Judge Ordell Horton, the first black American to sit on the federal bench in Tennessee.

While many, myself included, can argue against removing historical figures and monuments from cities across the nation, the removal of Davis’s name marks a special moment for the Horton family, who will finally get to see Judge Horton receive the recognition he deserves for his service to Memphis and Tennessee.

It also marks a special moment for Davis’s family, who called for the removal of his name from the building after they learned about their ancestor’s history.

Lastly, it marks a special moment for my former boss, Marc Perrusquia, and the success he’s seen in mentoring young journalists. Marc has spent much of his life as an investigative reporter in Memphis and has broken some of Tennessee’s biggest stories. His passion for journalism led him to create the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

At the Institute, Marc takes inspiring young journalists, usually those in the Master’s Program or above, and gives them a chance to learn how to be investigative reporters. It’s an amazing opportunity, and I will forever be grateful that Marc allowed me to be his guinea pig when creating the program.

The credit truly does belong to him.

The full story on Clifford Davis can be read here.

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