Like a lot of young lawyers setting up their first practice, as the 1960s began J. Mason Davis Jr. ’59 took pretty much every case that walked through his door.
But history has a way of finding its champions. The movement toward equal treatment for Black Americans had begun in earnest, and the young Birmingham, Ala., lawyer soon found himself in its midst.
When 125 Black protesters were arrested for staging the state’s first lunch-counter sit-in, Davis drove to Huntsville to represent many of the student protesters. He argued a series of appeals and won every case at the state Court of Appeals level. As a result of those legal victories and others, Alabama desegregated all public facilities, including the schools.
Teaching was in my blood. I have taught an appreciable number of all the lawyers who practice in Alabama.
In an early equal-opportunity case, he represented two Black employees of the Marshall Space Flight Center who were being significantly underpaid. After Davis argued the case before an arbitrator, the two were promoted and awarded back pay all the way from their hiring date.
Meanwhile, to support his young family, he kept on with estate work, civil claims, and property cases.
Great social change happens sometimes in grand gestures by charismatic leaders. But it comes too through those nibbling at the edges of injustice, pursuing equity one case at a time.
Davis comes from a highly educated family, and he says that insulated him from the worst ways of the segregated South. But not entirely. After earning his undergraduate degree at Talladega College, “I met segregation head-on,” he says. He applied to the University of Alabama School of Law and was told that no Blacks were allowed to enroll there. But the state offered a concession: It would pay the difference between the tuition at Alabama Law and any law school outside Alabama. Davis chose UB. Then, law degree in hand, he returned to Birmingham and set up shop.
Voting rights have been a particular crusade for him, starting with the day he went to register to vote in Birmingham after his 2L year. For Black applicants only, a literacy test was in effect, and three stern members of the Board of Registrars asked him to explain the 14th Amendment. “I had just completed two full semesters of Constitutional Law,” Davis remembers. “I began to tell them all the cases that I had learned during the past year. They sat there with their mouths open. Finally the lady administering the test threw her hands up and slammed them on the counter.” He was permitted to register to vote.
Few, of course, could pass that kind of test, so for years on Monday nights Davis would tutor would-be voters in a Baptist church – an effort that ended only when the 1965 Voting Rights Act eliminated the literacy test and the $1.50 poll tax.
Davis, who became only the ninth African-American lawyer to practice in Birmingham, would go on to a highly successful career as a partner in the firm Sirote & Permutt, P.C. Among his achievements, he was elected president of the Birmingham Bar Association, and chaired the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Central Alabama. He has also been active in the Democratic party at the local and state levels, and has been elected as a member of three boards of directors of corporations whose stock was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
And perhaps most tellingly, Davis taught for 25 years as an adjunct at the University of Alabama School of Law, two hours every Wednesday night. “Teaching was in my blood,” he says. “I have taught an appreciable number of all the lawyers who practice in Alabama.”