An Interview with J. Mason Davis
Published in 2015 Alabama Super Lawyers magazine
By Steve Knopper on April 29, 2015
Q: When you first started practicing law in Alabama, was it something that your family encouraged?
A: My mother had a brother who graduated from Ohio State in 1933 or 1934, and he practiced law in Cincinnati. He had worked with our family business, an insurance company, so my mother encouraged me to go to law school so I could come back and look after the business.
Q: What were some of the challenges, not only getting into law school, but once you were in?
A: At the State University of New York in Buffalo, my class started out in 1956 with four African-American members, one of whom worked full time, another guy was not working at all, and the other two of us went to school full time. One made it through the first semester—he was working; he was a social worker—and [then] he just dropped out. The next one did not make the grades at the end of the first year. And that left two of us. Those two ultimately graduated. Ray Green and I made it past the first semester, the second semester and the second year. I went on law review and I graduated in the spring of 1959.
Q: I’ve been hearing a little bit about Alabama’s policy about whether African-Americans could go to law school in those days.
A: You’re asking about out-of-state aid, aren’t you? It applied to every African-American of the state of Alabama that wanted to go to law school, medical school, dental school or accounting school, any of the professional schools, where a course was taught at University of Alabama Tuscaloosa. If it was offered there, you couldn’t be admitted to the University of Alabama because there was segregation. So I applied in 1956 and the State Board of Education paid me the difference of the cost of attending the University of Alabama and the cost of attending the State University of New York—plus my room and board and one-way train ticket to Buffalo and round trip ticket back to Birmingham.
Q: Can you explain what seems like a contradiction here? The state of Alabama wouldn’t let you attend school in Alabama, but on the other hand, it would pay for you to go elsewhere.
A: They paid out stipends so people would not file litigation against the University of Alabama. They paid to get rid of us. The only problem was that [many who] went North to law school came back. To me it was a stupid act on their part. They should’ve been willing to just go ahead and resist our fight to get into the University of Alabama, and after they [couldn’t] resist it, they should’ve admitted us.
Q: Give me an example of one of your early trials and the challenges that you went through.
A: When I first started practicing law, I shared space with two other lawyers, Peter A. Hall and Orzell Billingsley. We were hired by three of the leading citizens of Huntsville to come to Huntsville in late 1960, early 1961, to defend over 100 students of Alabama A&M College, Oakwood College and Councill High School. They staged sit-in demonstrations. We tried those cases and had to drive from Birmingham to Huntsville every morning because the hotels were segregated and we couldn’t’ stay there. We had to drive up and down the highway twice a day. We ultimately took one of the cases and appealed it to the Alabama Court of Appeals, and we won that case. We won every one of those cases.
Q: Did you ever fear for your life while you were doing these cases?
A: I had trepidation, I had some anxiety about it but I did not fear for my life. I was kind of stupid. They could’ve killed us going up and down that highway. The highway between Birmingham and Huntsville back during that time was a two-lane road.
Q: Was your strategy to win in the appeals court as opposed to the original court?
A: We tried to lay the foundation for the appeal in the city court. We put into evidence every possible thing that we could. We lost all those cases, we appealed it to the state circuit court and we tried the cases there anew. And we tried to do the same thing in the circuit court that we had done in the city court, and then appeal it to the Court of Appeals, so that that court could see everything that had happened in the trial court.
Q: It sounds like a bit of a laborious process.
A: That’s right. Every civil rights case that you have ever read of was tried the same way. The only difference is the ones that you have read about went to the U.S. Supreme Court and that was even more laborious.
Q: Did you face discrimination and racism in the city courts?
A: Well, you knew that you were going to lose the cases. We knew that from the beginning.
The only person that we had any problem with was [Huntsville City Court] Judge Horace Garth, and he was a segregationist. He didn’t want us there trying those cases so he put us to the test. It was testing the Huntsville discriminatory segregation laws that allowed them to segregate the lunch counters. We had to do everything according to the law. You had to watch your conduct in the court because he had the power to hold you in contempt. It never happened, but we had to be on the lookout.
Q: Was it always your intent to come back to Alabama and do civil rights work?
A: Sure. You had no choice. If you were going to be a lawyer in Birmingham, you knew that you were going to have to handle civil rights cases in one form or the other. After we handled those cases in Huntsville, I had to go back to represent a couple of guys who were working for NASA because they were experiencing prejudice there. The level of work they were doing was at a much higher level, but they were being paid for a much lower level. Each one of them received back pay and an increase in their job status.
In Birmingham, you still had the problem of [public safety commissioner] Bull Connor, and the problem of just out-and-out segregation in every form of your life. So I worked with a number of other black lawyers and white lawyers to change the form of government in early 1963. We were able to change the form of government from a commission form to a city council form, and we elected a nine-member city council and a mayor. If we had not changed the form of government, I don’t think that the merchants would’ve had the nerve to get rid of the segregated rooms that people had to use to dress, to try on clothes or to hire [African-American] sales clerks.
Bull Connor resisted the demonstrations. The pictures that you see of Connor and his police force and his fire hoses out there shooting water against kids and beating black men over their heads and all of that, and bombing the 16th St. Baptist Church: They did that, but it was a last gasp on their hold on power.
Q: Was there ever a point in your career where you said, “My work here is done”?
A: No. You can’t even do it today. When I first started practicing law, I was the ninth black man that was actively practicing in the city of Birmingham and maybe the 13th or 14th in the entire state of Alabama. Those lawyers did transactional work; they handled wills and deeds and divorces, that sort of thing.
It was only after Arthur Shores came in and started going into court in 1937, and his life was in danger every time he took one of those [civil rights] cases. He received threatening telephone calls, his wife received them, I guess the kids may have picked up the phone sometimes. It was a tough time. Birmingham, as I’m sure you have heard, was the most segregated city in the U.S.
Q: In the ’60s, the discrimination was blatant. Today it seems like it’s more subtle. When did you feel like that shift occurred?
A: 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. If you go to see the movie Selma, it will bring home to you the fight that Martin Luther King had, not only with the Southern sheriffs and police chiefs and mayors in the South. He had the same problem with Lyndon Johnson, who was being resisted by members of the Senate and the House not to pass a voting rights bill.
By [the early 1960s], there were at least 7,000 black voters in the city of Birmingham. 300,000 some people lived in Birmingham, maybe 1/3 were black; but out of that 100,000 only 7,000 were voters at the most. When the Voting Rights [Act] bill was passed in 1965, President Johnson sent voting registrars down to Birmingham, to Atlanta, to New Orleans, and the numbers just quadrupled overnight. That was the beginning of having black mayors in some of these cities and members of the city councils.
And that was the beginning of white flight from the large Southern cities. Whites didn’t want their child going to school with blacks; they went to the suburbs and set up their own school systems. Every time you read about the school system in the South, New York, Chicago, Detroit, L.A., about those schools being inferior, they are inferior because they are of all one race, and for the most part, they are all black. Those kids don’t have a chance to learn because their parents are for the most part unemployed; they have a history in their family of lack of education.
When I was born, I came from a very privileged background. My mother worked for her father; her father owned a funeral home and an insurance company. My father was a school principal. My father had five siblings; all of them graduated from college. My mother had nine siblings; all but one went to college.
Q: Today do you feel like opportunities are open for African-American attorneys or are there still lingering barriers?
A: You’ve got more than 200 black lawyers in Birmingham. I’m the oldest of the black lawyers. Those young people are having a hard time making a living. In the first place, the population of Birmingham has fallen to about 100,000 people. Heavy industry has left here. The jobs are out in the rural areas.
This law firm was started by Jewish lawyers; it now has a lot of white lawyers in it. We have five law offices, and we have six black lawyers in this law firm. But for the most part their clientele is given them by the older lawyers because they are not black businesses.
During segregation, you had a lot of black businesses; you had a lot of black insurance companies, restaurants, haberdasheries. If you go down the section where my office first started, most of those places don’t even exist anymore. One time there were three black newspapers, now there’s one. So you don’t have the clientele that these young lawyers can go out and attempt to get.
Many of the young blacks work for the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County and the state of Alabama, but there are only so many that you can have working for the various forms of government. So the other young lawyers, the other middle-aged lawyers, they have to get out there and get it for themselves. They have to build their own clientele; they have to get blacks to come to them and support them.
During segregation, the idea was the white man’s ice was colder. If you go to a black lawyer, you’re going to prison; if you’ve got a tough case, you need to get a white lawyer. That is still in the heads of the young black population today.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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