The law was used to try to push L. Clifford Davis and his family down. But Davis used the law to change the country and become one of the most respected legal minds in the country.
L. Clifford Davis was born in the small community of Wilton in the southwest corner of Arkansas in 1925. He was the youngest of seven children born to Augustus and Dora Duckett Davis.
As he grew up, the Jim Crow system in place blocked his attempt at an education. At the time, Little River County had no high schools for African-Americans, and segregation prevented him from attending with whites. He and his older brothers moved to Little Rock where he attended Dunbar High School. After graduation, he attended Little Rock’s Philander Smith College, graduating in 1945 at age 20. Seeing the success of prominent local Little Rock attorneys, Davis decided to pursue a career in law. He applied for the University of Arkansas Law School, but he was prevented from attending because of segregation. In 1946, he was accepted into law school at Howard University in Washington, DC.
In 1947, officials at the University of Arkansas Law School contacted him with a possibility of transferring to Fayetteville though under a segregated arrangement. Segregation, however, prevented him from having access to the same classes, materials, and professors as the other students, and therefore, an inferior law school experience. He instead continued at Howard University. The law school quietly desegregated the next year with the admission of Silas Hunt. Davis graduated from Howard in 1949.
Davis then returned to Arkansas. He specialized in civil rights law, and he was one of only nine black lawyers in the state at the time. Though a respected attorney in Pine Bluff, Davis moved to Waco, Texas, in 1952 to teach at Paul Quinn College (the college moved to Dallas in 1990).
Anxious to be back in the courtroom, Davis passed the Texas bar exam in 1953 and moved to Fort Worth in 1954 to open his own law firm. At the time, he was one of only two African-American lawyers in one of the biggest cities in the state. He quickly found himself in high demand.
Though the verdict in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education brought a legal end to segregation, there were still many local districts that fought for schools to separate for the races. In 1956, he filed a federal lawsuit to desegregate schools in Mansfield, then a small farming community southeast of Fort Worth. In the case Jackson vs. Rawdon, Mansfield High School was ordered desegregated, but local residents refused to heed the ruling. Mobs gathered at the local school to prevent the three African-American children from attending that fall. Texas Gov. Allan Shivers ordered the Texas Rangers in to maintain order and prevent violence. The intimidation of the crowds prevented the students from being able to exercise their constitutional rights, and the schools remained technically segregated for some time to come.
In 1959, he again took on a desegregation challenge. He sued the Fort Worth Independent School District, one of the largest in Texas, over its racial practices. He won the case Flax vs. Potts, forcing Fort Worth schools to integrate.
He was active in community affairs, working with a variety of organizations on different causes. He was also one of the first African-American lawyers to join the Tarrant County Bar Association. Black lawyers found it necessary to come together for mutual aid and support and, with Davis, formed the Fort Worth Black Bar Association. In honor of his years of work, the organization renamed itself as the L. Clifford Davis Legal Association.
In May 1983, he was appointed as a district judge for Criminal District Court No. 2 in Tarrant County. He was known for his fairness and discernment in pursuit of justice knowing that lives depended on his work, necessary qualities in any judge worth the title. In spite of this, he was defeated for re-election in 1988. Because of his respect in the legal community, he continued to serve as a visiting judge for many more years, asked to serve as a judge in special cases. He continued to periodically serve as a visiting judge, presiding over special cases on a one-by-one basis, until he stepped down in 2004 at the age of 79.
His years of dedication to the law and persistence in pursuit of freedom and personal honor had won him praise from allies and adversaries alike. A scholarship was named for him for graduating Fort Worth students, and the Fort Worth ISD named an elementary school for him.
In May 2017, the University of Arkansas Law School awarded him an honorary degree at age 92 in appreciation for his years of work. Sometimes success speaks for itself.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.