Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - “A Work in Progress”

Posted on March 20, 2007

I’ve often said America is a work in progress, and I’m pleased to announce that the United States Senate has taken an important step in recognizing both our steps forward as well as our commitment to continue to strive to measure up to the principles upon which our nation was founded. Earlier this month, I joined other senators in cosponsoring the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act – legislation that would establish a special section within the Department of Justice, and a new FBI office, to investigate old unsolved civil rights cases and bring the guilty to justice. Its our hope that doing so will help to heal some of the ugly scars of the past. Last week I had the privilege of introducing a bill to rename the Federal Building in Memphis as the Clifford Davis and Odell Horton Federal Building. Senator Bob Corker joined in cosponsorship in the Senate, and Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee’s ninth district introduced the House version of the same bill, which was cosponsored by every U.S. congressman from Tennessee. Judge Horton was a remarkable man. In 1980, he was appointed as the first African-American federal district court judge in Tennessee since Reconstruction. He left a legacy not only as a trailblazing civil rights pioneer, but also as a public servant of great integrity and dedication. I remember those days of transition very well. It was in that same year that I was Governor of Tennessee and appointed the first African-American Supreme Court justice in Tennessee, Judge George Brown (who also served with distinction). Odell Horton was born in Bolivar, Tennessee, just outside of Memphis, on May 13, 1929. His father was a laborer and his mother took in laundry. He and his three siblings picked cotton, stacked lumber and took other odd jobs. After high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and enrolled in Morehouse College using the GI Bill. He served with the Marines during the Korean War and graduated from the U.S. Navy School of Journalism. After the Marines, he earned a law degree from Howard University, and after graduating from Howard Law School in 1956 he moved to Memphis, rented a one-room office on legendary Beale Street, and opened his own law practice. He became an assistant U.S. attorney five years later. In 1968, he was named director of Memphis city hospitals, making him the only black division director at city hall at that time. Later he served as a judge on the Shelby County Criminal Court and as a commentator on a local television station. He ran for District Attorney General in 1974, narrowly losing the primary, at that time considered a very strong showing by an African-American candidate in Shelby County (which today has a black mayor, as does the city of Memphis). Horton served as U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge before being appointed U.S. District Judge by President Carter. He was married to his wife Evie for 50 years, with two sons, Odell, Jr., and Christopher. He died on February 22, 2006. This legislation to honor Judge Horton would keep the name of Clifford Davis on the Federal Building in Memphis. Clifford Davis was a congressman who served in the House of Representatives from 1940 to 1965. In 1954, he was one of five congressmen who were shot in the U.S. Capitol when four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from the visitors’ balcony in the House chamber. He was shot in the leg at the time. Keeping both names on the Memphis Federal Building is symbolic of the transition that took place in Memphis and across the South during Judge Horton’s lifetime and my lifetime. Both remind us that our country is committed to equal opportunity, but that it has been and is and will be for a long time a work in progress. Odell Horton is one of the finest examples of that work in progress. Having his name on a federal building will remind all of us of that, and legislation such as the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act recognize our efforts to grow as a nation.