Memphis civil rights leader Fred L. Davis, a former City Council member and pillar of the Orange Mound community, died at home Tuesday after months of illness, the family announced. He is 86 years old.
In addition to his wife Ella, who partnered with Davis in imagining the design of the Memphis City Council district, Davis left three children: Michael Davis, Marvin Davis and Sheila Davis.
His legacy includes many things first as the founder of Mid-South’s first black insurance company. And Davis provided leadership at key moments in Memphis, including during strikes and the desegregation of sanitation workers.
After he was arrested in the early 60s with his friends for trying to buy tickets at Fairgrounds on a day reserved only for whites, the Davis case forced the judge to decide in favor of integration.
“I’m angry, but I’m not afraid. I’m a little excited,” Davis recalled about his time as a pioneer in a Memphis Downtowner Magazine article.
“Sometimes I say to myself that God has an extraordinary sense of humor because after I left the City Council, I was appointed to the Parks Commission, which has jurisdiction over Fairgrounds, golf courses, Pink Palace – all of it,” Davis said in a 2018 interview.
“You don’t know what will happen from time to time.”
Before the council
Davis does not always focus on city politics. Growing up in Memphis, he had picked cotton from childhood. And then as an adult, Davis worked at the Peabody hotel and in Chicago packing meat during the summer vacation while studying at Tennessee State University, where he studied accounting.
That’s where he met his wife Ella, “over spreadsheets” as Davis remembered in an interview with Lynn Norment’s Commercial Appeal columnist.
Both are accounting students; she was the only African-American and the only woman in her class. After their marriage, the couple protested against the separation of the school from their children.
And they worked together to design the 13 City Council districts on their dining room tables, supplying the winning proposals that had been requested by the commission that navigated the city transition.
In 1968, Davis chose to run for one of the seats himself while also operating the first black-owned insurance agent in the region.
One of the three first black members of the City Council, Davis’s time as chair of the Public Works Committee coincided with the strike of sanitation workers. He advocated salary increases, improvement of working conditions and recognition of the trade unions they fought for.
Davis lined up next to Dr. Martin Luther King to support the workers, and he sat on the side of the stage when Dr. King delivered a stunning speech “Hilltop” on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple. He also represented the funeral of Dr. King attended by representing the city of Memphis.
After the Council
Davis’s citizen involvement did not end with his 12-year stint at the City Council.
He is president of the Liberty Bowl, founding director and president of the South-South Minority Business Council, appointed to the Society of Entrepreneurs, president of the University of Memphis Society, administrator of the Community Foundation, director of the Memphis Leadership Foundation, founder director of the Assisi Foundation, and recipient of the National Conference on Humanitarian Awards Christian and Jewish.
He also attended the Beulah Baptist Church for sixty years, where he was a deacon and former head of the supervisory board. And he remains committed to the old environment at Orange Mound.
In honor of his mother, Davis founded Charity’s House, a community resource center across the street from his church to provide child support, domestic violence, and substance abuse counseling services for residents of the environment.
Lynn Norment’s Commercial Appeal columnist contributed to this report
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