Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

John W. Davis and His Role in the Public School Segregation Cases - A Personal Memoir

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

John W. Davis and His Role in the Public School Segregation Cases - A Personal Memoir

Article excerpt

In August 1951, Governor James F. Byrnes of South Carolina retained John W. Davis (W&L A.B. 1892, LL.B. 1895), then senior partner at Davis Polk Wardwell Sunderland & Kiendl (Davis Polk) in New York City, to represent the State of South Carolina in Briggs v. Elliott,(1) one of five companion public school segregation cases (the School Segregation Cases) that, according to the lawyer who wrote the U.S. Attorney General's amicus curiae brief, "changed the whole course of race relations in the United States."(2) During that summer, I rejoined Davis Polk as an associate after a year's leave of absence to study law at Manchester University and the London School of Economics and Political Science under the auspices of the Fulbright Program. By virtue of that coincidence of events, I was provided an opportunity to work with one whom a commentator called "probably the nation's most distinguished appellate lawyer"(3) on a case that other commentators have characterized as "the most important Supreme Court decision of the century,"(4) and very close to if not actually "the most important decision in the history of the Court."(5)

I. The First Eighty Years

John William Davis was born on April 13, 1873 in Clarksburg, West Virginia, the son of United States Congressman John J. Davis. John J. Davis was a typically conservative southerner of his day, serving the cause of white supremacy and states' rights while in Congress and contending on the floor of the United States House of Representatives that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution had been fraudulently adopted under circumstances in which the southern states had been illegally deprived of their rightful representation in the governmental bodies that adopted those amendments.(6) Despite the elder Davis's conservative stance on social issues, he aligned himself in his law practice against the large corporate interests of his day. In representing the underprivileged members of his community, he demonstrated his belief that the law is a profession rather than a business.(7)

John W. Davis studied the classics at an early age under his mother's tutelage. He attended private schools in Clarksburg and in Albemarle County, Virginia, and in 1889 he enrolled as a sophomore at Washington and Lee College in Lexington, Virginia, at a time when General Robert E. Lee's son, Custis Lee, had succeeded his father as president.(8) Two years after earning a bachelor's degree in 1892, he entered the W&L Law School and graduated in 1895, going immediately into practice with his father in Clarksburg. At the invitation of his former professor, Dean John Randolph Tucker, he accepted a teaching position at the W&L Law School, but served there for only one year. From that post he returned to Clarksburg to practice law and soon established a reputation as one of the outstanding lawyers in West Virginia, serving as president of its bar association at the age of thirty-three. Already his politeness and unique combination of warmth and reserve had won him many friends and admirers. After serving in the West Virginia House of Representatives, he served two terms in the United States Congress, where he soon became known as the ablest lawyer in Congress.(9) During his time in Congress, he championed the cause of workmen's compensation as an appropriate regulation of interstate commerce and favored free trade, despite the fact that his own constituents felt threatened by it. Perhaps the high point of his progressive record came when he offered a bill to limit the issuance of injunctions against strikers in labor disputes. It eventually became a part of the Clayton Antitrust Act.(10)

In August 1913, Davis was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson as Solicitor General of the United States. True to form, he excelled in that post, as he had in each of his other career opportunities. During his service there he won a significant victory for black voters by convincing the United States Supreme Court that an Oklahoma "grandfather clause" exempting from a literacy test those voters whose ancestors had been eligible to vote prior to January 22, 1866 violated the Fifteenth Amendment. …

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