Longtime civil rights advocate given Blackstone Award

05/08/2014 8:13 PM

05/08/2014 8:14 PM

After a 65-year career, including 21 years presiding in courtrooms, L. Clifford Davis might consider slowing down.

But at age 89, he still works Monday through Friday in his law office, mostly, he said, helping senior citizens on fixed incomes deal with various legal issues.

As a young lawyer, in the early 1950s he was on legal teams that prepared court challenges for school desegregation in his native Arkansas. He later moved to Tarrant County, where he became a driving force in the desegregation of public schools in Mansfield and Fort Worth.

The Tarrant County Bar Association on Thursday honored Davis with its Blackstone Award for distinguished senior members who have demonstrated integrity and courage in their careers.

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Davis was humble and grateful. In discussing his accomplishments in the civil rights movement, he frequently used the word we, not I.

“We participated in bringing opportunities in broad range from housing to employment to public accommodations,” he said.

In 1947, as a law student at Howard University in Washington, Davis successfully petitioned the University of Arkansas Law School to accept African-Americans. But, when the school offered him a spot, he declined, opting instead to finish at Howard.

After getting his degree, Davis returned to Arkansas where he passed the bar exam in 1949 and joined efforts to desegregate public schools. He brought that experience to Fort Worth in 1955.

Davis was the lead counsel for the NAACP in federal lawsuits that eventually ended official segregation in Mansfield and Fort Worth public schools.

“Let me say this: We did not have the resistance in Fort Worth that many other Southern communities experienced,” Davis said. “There were people of good will in Fort Worth that would respond to our efforts to bring about fair play and opportunity.”

But in Mansfield, the lawsuit’s plaintiffs were threatened with violence and the schools didn’t become fully integrated until 1965.

“I think Judge Davis’ legacy becomes larger every year,” said the Rev. Michael Evans, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Mansfield. “The gentleman who called on Judge Davis to come help him, T.M. Moody, was hanged in effigy — twice.

“However, because of Judge Davis’ courage and tenacity, great things have happened.”

Evans said a diverse mix of ethnic groups are now represented on the Mansfield school board and in the school administration.

“That has benefited all students — yellow, black, brown and white,” Evans said. “And now we’re one of the top school districts in the state.

“Judge Davis had a lot to do with that.”

Davis was elected a state district judge in 1983, the first African-American elected in a contested judicial race in Tarrant County, according to the bar association. He was re-elected until 1988 and continued to work as a visiting judge through 2004.

In 2002, the Fort Worth school district named Clifford Davis Elementary after him. And recently, the Fort Worth Black Bar Association has renamed itself The L. Clifford Davis Legal Association.

Davis said he has been married to his wife, Ethel, for 58 years, and they have two daughters, Avis and Karen, who live in Arlington.

He works at the Fort Worth firm of Johnson, Vaughn & Heiskell. The Blackstone Award, he said, is a high professional honor.

“The thing about it is, when your peers speak well of you, it’s really rewarding,” he said. “And I’m the kind of person who, when people give me flowers, I want to still be here to smell and appreciate them.”

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