Law could erase former klansman’s name from Memphis’ federal building

Published: Nov. 5, 2021 at 6:46 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - For 14 years, both the names Clifford Davis and Odell Horton have been engraved in the Memphis Federal Building, but that soon could change.

“We think this is appropriate,” said Congressman Steve Cohen, (D) Tennessee.

Cohen sponsored a bill that would remove Clifford Davis’ name from the federal building.

Davis was a Congressman and judge who was a strong proponent of Jim Crow laws and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Originally, Davis’ name was the lone name on the federal building until 2007 when Cohen sponsored a bill to add Judge Odell Horton.

“When I was elected, I wanted to honor Judge Odell Horton, who was most deserving of the honor. He’d served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the building and a federal district court judge, and the chief federal district court judge in the building. And he was the first of so many things. First African American assistant U.S. attorney and first district court. So, it was not the political will at the time to take Clifford Davis’s name off the building, who had been involved in Jim Crow type activities,” Cohen said.

If passed, the federal building would be named exclusively in Horton’s honor.

“On behalf of my parents and my brother, Chris Horton, we’re just elated that this may be a possibility,” said Horton’s son and namesake, Odell Horton, Jr.

He says his father leaves behind a strong legacy.

He was the first assistant U.S. attorney in the Memphis, the president of LeMoyne-Owen College, and the first African American U.S. district judge in the Western District of Tennessee.

“When he came to Memphis, there were not many African American lawyers here in town and the number of lawyers has grown over the years. I’m one, and we really appreciate the example that he’s given us,” Horton, Jr. said.

Davis’ family also supports the removal of his name. A statement from the family reads:

“We are proud of Cliff Davis’ many contributions to Memphis, but his membership in the Klan and support of Jim Crow cannot be excused.”

Faith Morris with the National Civil Rights Museum says the stance of Davis’ family is commendable.

“I think it was a huge statement for Davis’ family to step up, recognizing that yes, he was well-known and well-respected, especially in the groups that he participated in, but times have changed and supporting that kind of behavior certainly publicly or at all, but certainly publicly is no longer how people really want to position themselves,” Morris said.

The bill passed the House Thursday, 422-2, with the entire Tennessee Congressional Delegation in support of it.

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

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