A Lasting Legacy

Civil rights attorney L. Clifford Davis is leaving an impact on the law and community.

By Bobbie Edmonds

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From humble beginnings, L. Clifford Davis has led an extraordinary life in the law. Growing up a son of a sharecropper in Wilton, Arkansas, Davis’ early educational opportunities were limited, so his parents allowed him to move to Little Rock with his older sibling where he went on to graduate from high school in three years. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Philander Smith College, Davis pursued and received a master’s in economics while waiting for admission to the then all-white University of Arkansas School of Law.

His initial application was denied, but in 1947, Davis was offered admission under harsh restrictions. He was to be taught in a separate classroom, would have a separate study room, and would not have access to the library or bathrooms used by white students. He declined the invitation, but his actions opened the door for the law school to admit its first black student, Silas Hunt, a year later.

Young Davis was inspired to pursue the legal profession by civil rights attorney Scipio Jones. He had led the successful appeals of 12 black sharecroppers who were sentenced to death for participating in a race riot in the rural town of Elaine in 1919.

Davis got one step closer to his dream when in 1949, he graduated from Howard University School of Law. He then returned to Arkansas and was admitted to practice. Just five years later, the tenacious practitioner moved to Texas, where he worked with the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1955, Davis filed a lawsuit, Jackson v. Rawdon, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, which resulted in the desegregation of the Mansfield Independent School District. Another of his cases led to the desegregation of the Fort Worth ISD, and in 2002, the district’s trustees built a school in his honor, L. Clifford Davis Elementary.

In 1983, Davis was the first appointed African-American judge to preside over a district court in Tarrant County, where he remained until December 1988. He later presided over Tarrant County’s first drug diversion court from 1996 to 2002. Over the years he garnered many accolades, including receiving the Tarrant County Bar Association’s Blackstone Award, being awarded an honorary degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law in 2017, and having the African American Bar Association of Tarrant County named the L. Clifford Davis Legal Association.

Davis has always believed in equality in education, housing, and employment and in removing barriers to choose any bus seat and bathroom—views he has demonstrated through acts big and small throughout his life. He has always striven for black representation on political and civic bodies and fought for the good of the general public. Some students in Davis’ neighborhood have attended college thanks to his paying their way. He has stayed connected and involved in the community, providing pro bono services and setting a good example for all to follow.

At 92, Davis remains active in the law, working with the L. Clifford Davis Legal Association and serving as of counsel to Johnson, Vaughn & Heiskell, and in church, as a member of St. Andrews United Methodist. He has two daughters, Avis and Karen, and was married to his late wife, Ethel, for more than 50 years.

“To say that L. Clifford Davis is an iconic figure is an understatement,” said Judge Louis Sturns of the 213th District Court. “Judge Davis has been a transformative figure in the city of Fort Worth and throughout North Texas not only because of his legal skills but also because of his civic involvement.”TBJ

Bobbie Edmonds

BOBBIE EDMONDS is a solo practitioner based in Fort Worth who focuses on a range of areas, including personal injury law and family law. She is also an alternate municipal judge for the city of Forest Hill.

There are those who lead and inspire their peers— they embody service, passion, and excellence. If you know a living legend, please contact us at tbj@texasbar.com.

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