State of Arkansas v. Tee Davis
State of Arkansas v. Tee Davis was a criminal lawsuit in the Crittenden County Circuit Court in September 1943 that resulted in the conviction of African-American sharecropper and Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) member Tee Davis for assault with intent to kill.
Davis was at home in Edmondson (Crittenden County) on March 22 with his wife, Elizabeth, when an intruder began pounding on the door demanding that Davis come outside. Fearing for his safety, Davis armed himself with a shotgun and fired two blasts through the door. The intruder was later revealed to be Edmondson business owner and town marshal Harold E. Weaver. Two Crittenden County deputy sheriffs had enlisted Weaver to help them perform warrantless searches of sharecropper cabins in Edmondson to find a cattle thief.
Despite Weaver’s violent arrival and his failure to identify himself as law enforcement, Davis was arrested and ultimately sentenced to ten years in prison. His conviction sparked a nationwide media campaign during which the STFU and its legal arm, the Workers Defense League (WDL), worked with like-minded newspapers to bring awareness to the plight of Tee Davis. Efforts to free Tee Davis culminated in the formation of the Arkansas Citizens Committee, a biracial body of activists in Little Rock (Pulaski County) dedicated to seeking equal justice for whites and blacks in the Arkansas courts.
The circumstances of the Tee Davis case originate in a 1941 civil suit in the Crittenden County Chancery Court in which the Edmondson Home and Improvement Company, a real estate company involved in buying and selling land exclusively to African Americans in Edmondson, filed a complaint alleging that Weaver had acquired their property over failure to pay a tax that had never actually been levied against them. The Edmondson Home and Improvement Company was represented by STFU attorney K. T. Sutton, who also served as Tee Davis’s defense attorney. While investigating the Tee Davis case, an attorney for the WDL connected the two incidents, contending that the Tee Davis incident was part of Weaver’s intimidation of union members.
After Davis’s conviction, Sutton worked closely with STFU president and co-founder H. L. Mitchell and the executive secretary of the Workers Defense League, Morris Milgram, to raise funds for an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The appeal called for a new trial because Davis had been convicted by an all-white jury. Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) agreed to pay the $500 for Davis’s bail while awaiting the results of his appeal, but Sheriff Cecil V. Goodwin suddenly raised Davis’s bail to $2,500. Throughout the 1940s, the STFU, WDL, and NAACP remained active in advocating for Tee Davis.
After the Arkansas Supreme Court denied the appeal in January 1944, Sutton, Mitchell, and Milgram decided to appeal directly to Governor Homer Adkins. Sutton attempted to meet with Adkins with state Senator Peter A. Deisch, but a meeting was never held. Milgram and Mitchell devised a strategy that involved publishing articles in numerous black and labor-friendly newspapers describing the circumstances of Davis’s conviction and asking readers to write letters directly to Adkins demanding a pardon for Davis. The letters continued to pour into the governor’s office even after Ben Laney succeeded Adkins as governor in 1945.
Individuals from all over the country wrote to the governor’s office defending Tee Davis, and the campaign received hundreds of donations for Davis’s legal fees. Arkansas conservatives reacted to the campaign by vilifying the Workers Defense League as a communist organization. Arkansas newspapers wrote of “outside agitation” from “northern interests” seeking to upset the southern status quo. U.S. Representative Ezekiel “Took” Gathings made a statement on the House floor decrying the actions of the WDL and defending the Arkansas court system. In response, the WDL employed Arkansas native Mae Pearl Kelley to organize a grassroots effort to free Davis. Working closely with the Reverend Samuel Freeman of Little Rock, Kelley created the Arkansas Citizens Committee, a body made up of five black and five white activists dedicated to achieving equal justice in the Arkansas courts. Despite the committee’s efforts, the parole board denied Davis’s application. There are few sources revealing the details of Davis’s eventual release from prison, but it is likely that the election of labor-friendly Sid McMath as governor of Arkansas contributed to Davis’s release after he served seven of his ten years.
The national media coverage of the Tee Davis case did more than advocate for one individual’s freedom. It placed a national spotlight on the mistreatment of African Americans and union members in Arkansas at a time when corporate and white supremacist interests were combatting liberal forces seeking fair pay and protection in the courts. In making Tee Davis a cause célèbre, the STFU, WDL, and NAACP were inserting the plight of African American sharecroppers into the national discussion.
For additional information:
Ownbey, Samuel. “‘The Once Peaceful Little Town’: Edmondson, Arkansas, and the Decline of African American Landownership.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2020. Online at https://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/3702/ (accessed July 6, 2022).
Workers Defense League Records, Box 189, Folders 1–36, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs. Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.
Samuel M. Ownbey
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