Neil Owen Davis (1914-2000) was the owner and publisher of two small weekly newspapers—the Lee County Bulletin and the Tuskegee News. He is best remembered for his editorials during the civil rights era, which were hailed for their appeals to calm, justice, racial equality, and social reform. He was quoted often in major newspapers across the country, and he denounced Gov. George Wallace and others who pushed for white supremacy in the state. Over several decades, Davis argued powerfully to repeal the poll tax and for anti-lynching laws, better schools, tax reform, and fair treatment for blacks. The Bulletin and Davis himself won numerous state and national awards; Davis was once even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by the staff of The Washington Post.
Davis was born on August 15, 1914, in Hartford, Geneva County, to Charles F. Davis, a dentist, and Catherine Davis, the youngest of three sons. Davis attended local public schools and in 1931 entered Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API, now Auburn University), where he became editor of the student newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman, in 1934. Davis graduated in 1935 with a degree in journalism and English and took a job as a reporter with the Dothan Eagle, in Dothan, Houston County. After stints at two other newspapers, Davis returned to Auburn in 1937 and established the town's first newspaper, the Lee County Bulletin. The following year, he married Henrietta Worsley of Columbus, Georgia, who was also a graduate of the API journalism program. The couple would have three children.
The newspaper swiftly earned wide respect for its thorough reporting, largely the work of Henrietta, and for Davis's articulate, powerful editorials on such topics as the New Deal, underfunded schools, the need for more small homegrown businesses, and the plight of sharecroppers. In 1941, Davis became the fourth Alabamian and the first weekly editor in the nation to receive a prestigious Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spent 1941-42 studying journalism there. In 1942, after World War II began, the Davises relocated to Washington, D.C., where Neil served in the U.S. Army as an administrative assistant in the Office of the Assistant Chief of Air Staff Personnel and then the War Department's General Staff, Legislative, and Liaison Division. Henrietta continued to run the paper during frequent visits to Auburn. During their years in Washington, the Davises associated with powerful New Deal supporters from Alabama, including Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, U.S. senators John Sparkman and Lister Hill, and civil rights activists Aubrey Williams and Clifford and Virginia Durr. Davis credited his time with these people in clarifying his understanding of and commitment to journalism that advocates social justice.
Davis returned to Alabama in 1945 and rejuvenated the Bulletin, which had barely remained afloat during his tenure in Washington, continuing his editorial writing on social justice issues. His importance to journalism was recognized in 1947 when he was elected president of the Alabama Press Association. The following year, he bought a share of the ownership in the WAUD radio station. Foreseeing the inevitable end of segregated education, Davis had written urgently for years before the Brown v. Board decision desegregating schools in 1954 about inequities of public education for blacks and had warned that poor schools in general were crippling the entire state's prospects. While other editorialists, even in major newspapers, failed to counsel Alabamians to accept the new laws and sidestepped criticizing massive white resistance, Davis helped engineer the calm desegregation of Auburn University and the Auburn public schools in large part through his forceful but thoughtful editorials. In addition, he and Henrietta provided calm, factual coverage of local events in a time when many newspapers either ignored or downplayed race-related incidents happening around them.
In the hope of diffusing the violence and racial tensions characterizing desegregation in nearby Macon County, Davis bought the Tuskegee News in 1964 from local owner Harold Fisher, who ignored news about the black community—more than three quarters of the county's population—and who editorialized harshly against the Supreme Court's decision and civil rights activists. Davis established friendships with such noted Tuskegee University faculty as Charles Gomillion, and helped develop a partnership between Tuskegee's black Presbyterian church and Auburn's white counterpart. Despite opposition to his views, which included hate mail and threatening telephone calls, Davis's editorial and financial skills allowed both the News and the Bulletin to thrive.
Even after the greatest racial and social unrest had subsided, Davis continued to influence readers, journalists, and Alabamians
alike. His public service included serving as a member of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles and of Pres. Lyndon B.
Johnson's Presidential Commission on Rural Poverty. For years he served as an adjunct journalism professor at Auburn University,
and many successful journalists either interned or had their first jobs in his newsroom. In 1976, Davis sold his papers to
Boone Newspapers Inc. and retired from the newspaper business. Henrietta Davis died in 1987. In 1997, Davis endowed the Neil
O. and Henrietta Davis Lecture Series, through which the Auburn University journalism program brings distinguished reporters
and writers to speak on their field and their experiences; past speakers have included four Pulitzer Prize winners. Davis
died on June 7, 2000, and was buried in Auburn. In 2002, he was inducted posthumously into the University of Alabama's College of Communication and Information Sciences Hall of Fame; in 2005, eight years after his wife had been, he was inducted
in the Auburn University Journalism Hall of Honor.
Norrell, Robert J. Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee. Revised edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Judith E. Sheppard
Published April 12, 2011
Last updated March 22, 2012