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The Name Change that Took an Act of Congress

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Mark Weber/Daily Memphian
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Congressman Steve Cohen (left) sponsored legislation to rename the Federal Building after Odell Horton exclusively.

For U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), there was some déjà vu as he stood outside the 11-story federal building next to Memphis City Hall.

He inherited office space there after winning his seat in 2007, and his very first bill took issue with the building’s name, dedicated to one of his own – a Democratic U.S. Representative who served 12 terms from 1940 to 1965.

But Rep. Clifford Davis was cut from an earlier political cloth. He had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and was opposed to both integration and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

At the time, Cohen doubted he could muster the votes for a complete renaming, so he added a second name: Odell Horton, the first Black federal judge appointed in West Tennessee since the era of Reconstruction.

The Clifford Davis/Odell Horton Federal Building—honoring both a segregationist and a civil rights pioneer— was a contradiction not lost on many, including Nina Albert, commissioner of the Federal Buildings Service.

“Courthouses in particular have special meaning to communities because they represent democracy in action and where America’s rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness are to be protected,” Albert said at the rededication.

Last year, Cohen’s new bill overcame partisan gridlock and passed almost unanimously in both the U.S. House and Senate. Cohen said it’s important the federal building have just one namesake: Odell Horton.

“He had a life worth remembering and worth being emulated," Cohen said. "Therefore, today is the appropriate and proper day to recognize his work, to have this building to be named and remembered and thought of with honor and no shadows.”

If Clifford Davis had once been a popular local politician, his white supremacist legacy became so glaring that even his own descendants supported the change.

At the dedication, Odell Horton Jr., noted that beyond his father’s accomplishments, which include working in Memphis City government and a stint as President of LeMoyne-Owen College, he also understood the challenges faced then—and now – by a majority of the people he served.

“He knew it was difficult to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you had no boots," Horton said. "Our father lived by a very simple Bible verse: 'What does the Lord require of you? To do justly to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.'”

As of this week, Horton’s legacy no longer walks side-by-side with that of Clifford Davis. And the new name signals toward what the federal building is meant to house: justice.

This story is produced in collaboration with WKNO and the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting.