Clifford Davis, U.S. representative from Memphis, was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, on November 18, 1897, to Odom A. and Jessie Davis. In 1911, the family moved to Memphis, where the elder Davis worked for the Illinois Central Railroad and Clifford attended Central High School. After graduation, Davis enrolled in the University of Mississippi, where he earned a law degree in 1918. Returning to Memphis, Davis practiced law until Mayor Rowlett Paine appointed him his executive secretary.
Davis had political ambitions of his own, and in 1923 he decided to run for city judge. Mayor Paine, however, refused to support his candidacy. Resigning his position, Davis sought and received the support of the Memphis chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In the early 1920s, the Memphis Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan emerged as an important factor in local politics, which no doubt was the reason Davis sought their support. Opposing Davis and the Klan was the political organization headed by Edward Hull Crump. All of the Klan candidates were defeated save one. Davis won the election, making him the only avowed Klan member to ever win elective office in Memphis. A widely respected jurist, Davis increased the fine for speeding, which reduced traffic fatalities by 50 percent.
Davis’s popularity became an important factor in the 1927 Memphis city election. Edward Hull Crump, the former mayor and leader of the Shelby County Democratic Party, hoped to extend his political influence by defeating incumbent Mayor Rowlett Paine. In the 1920s, Crump forged a political organization made up of African Americans, organized labor, and the white middle class, but despite his considerable power, he had no influence over the direction of Memphis city government. In order to successfully challenge Paine, Crump selected a slate of candidates that would appeal to a broad coalition of Memphis voters.
He chose local attorney and state legislator Watkins Overton to run for mayor and asked Davis to run for vice-mayor and fire and police commissioner. No doubt eager to oppose his former employer, Davis readily agreed. The Overton-Davis ticket received crucial support from African American and white middle-class voters while Paine desperately attacked them as mere pawns of a political dictator. Despite Paine’s rhetoric, the entire Crump-sponsored ticket, including Davis, was elected. The election of Overton and Davis not only solidified Crump’s personal control over Memphis, it also merged city and county government into a unified political apparatus under the direction of the Shelby County Democratic Party.
In 1939, Overton decided not to seek re-election due to a series of disagreements with Crump. Walter Chandler, then serving in Congress, was appointed mayor by the city commission in January 1940. Chosen by Crump to succeed Chandler, Davis was elected to the House of Representatives later that year. In Congress, Davis was a member of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee and served as chairman of the Committee on Flood Control. During World War II, he was a member of the Military Affairs Committee, in which he was instrumental in securing several important military installations for Memphis, including an army hospital, a quartermaster supply depot, and a naval air station. In 1956, Davis co-sponsored the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which established America’s massive interstate highway system. Davis’s most significant accomplishment was the passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority Self-Financing Bill, which authorized the agency to issue revenue bonds in order to construct distribution plants and thereby increase the production of electricity.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of Davis’s political career came in March 1954, when three Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire with pistols during a congressional session. Davis was shot in the leg, and four other representatives were also wounded. Davis quickly recovered, serving ten more years in congress. By 1964, Davis had been elected to Congress twelve times without facing serious opposition. In that year, however, he was opposed by attorney and World War II veteran George W. Grider. Popular with African American voters, Grider defeated Davis in the Democratic Party primary and went on to defeat Republican nominee Robert James in the general election. After his political defeat, Davis chose to remain in Washington, practicing law until his death on June 8, 1970. Clifford Davis’s political career had a significant impact on the development of Tennessee in the twentieth century. Most notably, his sponsorship and passage of the TVA Self-Financing Bill preserved the Tennessee Valley Authority and dramatically increased the amount of electricity available to the citizens of the Volunteer State.
Roger Biles, Memphis in the Great Depression (1986); G. Wayne Dowdy, Mayor Crump Don’t Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis (2006); Kenneth T. Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930 (1967)