Tupelo’s grand marshal: Council president has long legacy of pushing for change

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Tupelo native Nettie Davis joined the civil rights movement when she was a student at Nashville’s Fisk University in 1960.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Tupelo native Nettie Davis joined the civil rights movement when she was a student at Nashville’s Fisk University in 1960.

By M. Scott Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – City Council President Nettie Davis will ride through town in a horse-drawn carriage on Tuesday, when she serves as grand marshal of the 2013 Reed’s Tupelo Christmas Parade.

“I’m really looking forward to that ride,” she said.

Davis is a child of Tupelo, and lives in the same house on Barnes Street where she was born some 72 years ago.

“The hospital, then, the east side was where the minorities went in,” she said, “but a lot of people couldn’t afford to go to the hospital, anyway.”

Her mother worked at Carver School, and her dad commuted to Memphis where he was a brick mason. Davis was named after her grandmother.

“She was like me. She was a very aggressive lady,” Davis said. “She wasn’t educated like I was, but she was very smart.”

Davis has childhood memories of taking leadership roles at St. Paul United Methodist Church and with the Girl Scouts.

“Plus, playing in my community with the other kids, I was the boss,” she said.

The leadership skills she first developed during Tupelo’s segregated past continue to serve her today. She’s in her fourth term as Ward 4 councilwoman, and currently serves as council president.

“I felt like I would be blocked to be president because I’m a female and a minority, but my path cleared,” she said. “People felt confidence in me and felt I had the ability to lead the council. I got a unanimous vote.”

The lunch counter

She has pleasant memories of her days growing up in Park Hill community and attending Carver School, where she played cymbals in the band.

The school’s gymnasium was the envy of black children in other school districts.

“Someone said, ‘You’re not unhappy if you don’t know what you’re missing,’” she said.

Her eyes opened up to the inequities in 1960, when she went to Fisk University in Nashville.

“That’s when the civil rights movement was booming. That was the time when the sit-in movement started,” she said. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came and met with the students. He was a young man then. He believed in nonviolence. He told us all the things we wanted to accomplish.”

F.W. Woolworth Co. was a large chain of stores, and blacks weren’t allowed to sit at the lunch counters.

“Dr. King said he wanted us to go down and sit-in,” Davis said. “He wanted us to break the barrier at the lunch counter.”

The events of that sit-in are depicted in “The Butler,” a movie released earlier this year. Unlike most who saw the movie, Davis also has her memories.

“They told us to bring our books. We were going to sit at the lunch counter and be passive, not fighting back,” she said. “What they did was spit on us. They kicked us. They called us all ugly names. We kept reading and tried to ignore it.

“They started pulling us off the stools. The police arrived with the paddy wagon. It looked like an armored car. Of course, we were the ones being arrested.”

Davis spent three days in jail, sleeping on a hard cot and eating rice and beans.

“My mom and all of them saw it on TV,” Davis said, “and they were upset by it and told me to stop getting involved in everything.”

More to do

After two years at Fisk, Davis transferred to Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. Jesse Jackson was a civil rights leader in the city, and Davis got to know him because he dated one of her friends.

She didn’t get involved in demonstrations in Greensboro, but she took an important step.

“I had to take a test on the Constitution of the United States and you had to pass it to register to vote,” Davis said. “I passed it, but a lot of people had trouble with the test. I tutored some people. I hate to say it, but the poll test was designed to keep us from voting.”

She returned to Tupelo after graduation, and her civil rights work in Nashville followed her home when she tried to get a job as director of the C.C. Augustus Center.

The man who interviewed her asked if she would continue trying to make things better for her race.

“I told him I would. That upset him awful,” Davis said. “He wouldn’t give me the position.”

True to her word, Davis went door to door to encourage people to register to vote.

In that, she was also true to her namesake grandmother, who was among the first black women in the region to register, Davis said.

“It is really strange how Tupelo has changed,” she said. “I have seen so much.”

Davis eventually became an art teacher for Tupelo Public School District, and her husband, Fred Davis, was a longtime coach at Tupelo High School. They have two children who live in Tupelo.

She’s retired from the school system, but she keeps busy. In addition to her council duties, she’s an artist, as well as a leader in her sorority, Kappa Alpha Kappa.

She still attends St. Paul United Methodist Church, one of the places she first used her leadership skills years ago.

“My main goal is to get everybody on one team,” she said. “If you’re on one team, there is no limit to what you can accomplish.”

She said the team isn’t about black and white these days.

When she’s riding in that horse-drawn carriage during Tuesday’s parade, she’ll see Hispanics, Asians and others along the route.

“I love my city,” Davis said. “I am really proud of Tupelo because we have worked through a lot of problems, and we’ll keep working.”

scott.morris@journalinc.com