Monday, December 25, 2000

She'll depend on teamwork

New NAACP president maintains it's the foundation of civil rights

By Allen Howard
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Norma Holt Davis was born 51 years ago in Acmar, Ala., a small mining town just outside Birmingham, recognized today as the birthplace of civil rights.

        The North Avondale lawyer still recalls the daily dose of civil rights education she received from her middle-class parents while growing up: “Get registered to vote, stick together and work together.”

        Working together is exactly what Mrs. Davis has been preaching ever since. On Jan. 1, she plans to put that teamwork mentality to use when she be comes just the second woman to assume the presidency of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, succeeding the retiring Dr. Milton Hinton.

   • Born: 1949 in Acmar, Ala., the oldest of seven children born to Norman and Eloise Davis.
   • Residence: North Avondale.
   • Occupation: Runs a general civil law practice from her home.
   • Education: Received bachelor's degree in chemistry from Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Ala., 1971; received law degree from University of Cincinnati in 1982.
   • Career: Worked with the law firm of William Bell & Associates, downtown, 1982-83, before becoming a staff lawyer for the U.S. Appeals Court for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, where she worked 1983-87. She has been in private law practice since 1987.
   • NAACP background: Mrs. Davis has been a member of the local chapter's executive committee since 1994 and has served on the legal redress committee since 1997.
   • Family: Married to the Rev. Wayne R. Davis, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Walnut Hills. They have one child, a daughter, Kalila, 22.
   • Favorite music: Jazz and gospel.

        “We learned at an early age that teamwork was the foundation of the civil rights movement,” Mrs. Davis said. “We saw a lot of it at work in the massive civil rights marches and protest demonstrations in the South (in the 1960s).

        “Growing up, it was almost like you were drafted into a civil rights army. Fighting for your rights became a part of your life. I grew up in the South when the separate-but-equal philosophy was still practiced in education and when people were still marching for equal public accommodation.”

        Mrs. Davis, who runs a general civil law practice out of her home, takes over the high-profile position as the NAACP faces controversy on at least two local fronts:

        • The branch's election procedures were unsuccessfully challenged by three candidates for president who claimed they were treated unfairly when they were not contacted for interviews.

        • The NAACP led a demonstration at City Hall in November, protesting the deaths of two African-Americans at the hands of Cincinnati Police.

        Mrs. Davis, who will remain a member of the branch's Legal Redress Committee, said the branch is still investigating the cases.

        “I expect to continue to have the branch in the forefront, protesting racial discrimination wherever it occurs in this city,” she said. “Civil rights is our business.”

        The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Greater New Light Baptist Church in North Avondale and a civil rights pioneer, was one of Mrs. Davis' heroes in the 1960s, although the two have never met.

        The Rev. Mr. Shuttlesworth walked side by side with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Bloody Sunday March on March 7, 1965, from Birmingham to Selma. He has continued his civil rights advocacy since moving to Cincinnati in 1961.

        “Small towns (like Acmar) were like little tributaries of racial problems flowing into the bigger cities,” said Rev. Shuttlesworth. “The world heard about Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery, but the little towns had the same problems.”

        It was in that environment where Mrs. Davis developed the leadership qualities she still uses in her law practice, at home and at her church, Bethel Baptist in Walnut Hills. Her husband of 26 years, the Rev. Wayne Davis, is the pastor.

        Two years ago, Mrs. Davis was asked to serve on the church's Education Ministry Team. Her task was to create more interest in Bible study.

        “She developed the Christian Outreach Program 2000, in which she organized members into cell groups based on their zip codes,” says friend and church member Lillian Victor of Forest Park.

        “People living in different parts of the city became involved in Bible study classes during the week because they could do it in their own communities through their cell groups.”

        Mrs. Victor calls Mrs. Davis a catalyst who can get things done.

        “She can take a team of people and lead them while being an intricate part of the team.”

        Her law background has been an asset in her three years as a member of the branch's Legal Redress Committee. With her quick smile and slight Southern accent, Mrs. Davis can exude a soft persona. But she is known for her sternness at the negotiating table, where she has hammered out agreements and set policies against racial discrimination.

        “She is from a big family (one of seven children) from the South and she has much of that Southern hospitality and friendliness,” her husband says. “But she is a dedicated worker who gives 110 percent to her law practice and whatever project she gets involved with.

        “I had some reservations about her running for the presidency of the NAACP because I know how involved she gets. I didn't want to lose my wife to work and volunteer activities.”

        Her tough side became apparent in 1998, when she was a part of the branch's legal team that joined with Housing Opportunities Made Equal in a lawsuit against Nationwide Insurance Company. The branch challenged its practice of not insuring African-Americans.

        “I found her very intelligent and alert,” said Karla Irvine, executive director of HOME. “She and her legal team were very adamant about getting specific details spelled out in the settlement.”

        The settlement, agreed to in 1999, included Nationwide paying $750,000 to HOME and the NAACP. Earlier this year, she was part of the branch's legal team that developed a 19-point corrective action plan against racial discrimination in city hiring practices. Cincinnati City Council approved the plan in February.

        Johnathan Holifield, a Cincinnati lawyer and vice president of new economy enterprises for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, worked with Mrs. Davis on the hiring practices issue.

        “She is a hard-nosed, well-versed attorney who knows how to negotiate,” said Mr. Holifield, who served as vice president of the NAACP branch from 1996 to 2000.

        Marian Spencer, former Cincinnati council member and the only other woman to head the branch (1980-82), has worked with Mrs. Davis and finds her equal to the task.

        “If there is such a person as the right woman for the job, she is it,” Mrs. Spencer says. “She has worked her way up through the branch as a team player and leader. She is what we need.”

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