By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
Few in Birmingham have combined the law and education the way attorney J. Mason Davis has.
In 2019, the United Way of Central Alabama announced the launch of the J. Mason Davis Leadership Society to bring together African Americans who strive to positively impact the community through a shared affinity for philanthropy, volunteerism and advocacy.
He recalled agreeing to attach his name only if the organization in turn made a commitment to “go into underprivileged neighborhoods and teach children to read and write . . . If we wait until kindergarten or first grade, they’re already behind the other students,” he said when Regions honored him for a lifetime of achievement in 2022.
During an interview with the Birmingham Times, Davis was asked what it meant to have the Leadership Society named after him.
“For me, it was an honor because I have worked with United Way since I was in elementary school. Back when United Way was known as the Community Chest. I can remember taking three pennies to school. At one point, I was in the lower elementary grades to put in with the rest of the kids three pennies to send to community chest so that they can do work all over the city of Birmingham. That gave me a great, great thrill because I knew I was sharing with others that didn’t have three pennies to put in to share with other people in the city of Birmingham.”
Davis said it is important for children to know how to read at a young age.
“I have a great feeling that Black children are losing out because they are failing to learn to read early enough,” he said. “The main point of the J. Mason Davis Leadership’s society is to begin teaching young on the underprivileged Black kids, three years of age to learn to read.
“You cannot do anything unless, you can read,” he said. “You can’t graduate from elementary school. You can’t graduate from high school. You can’t graduate from college; you can’t get a job unless you can read.”
Davis said he read an article that said reading and math scores have gone down in the country probably because of the pandemic.
“They were always down, and then they went up. Because of the pandemic, they’ve gone down again. If they went down for the entire country, which means that our young Black kids are having a hard time learning to read at the same time as everybody else. And because of that, once a kid gets to about the 10th grade, if he fails to learn to read, he drops out of school. And he doesn’t get a high school diploma,” said Davis.
A Birmingham native, Davis attended Talladega College and the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law before returning to his hometown to begin his own law practice in 1959, initially specializing in Civil Rights cases.
He was involved in some of the most significant controversies in the ongoing struggle, including serving as attorney for a number of students who participated in the widely publicized Huntsville, Alabama, lunch counter sit-ins of 1961 and 1962.
With that case, and a number of others, Davis played a key role in the desegregation of Alabama.
Victoria White, Individual Giving Officer at United Way, who oversees the J. Mason Davis Leadership Society said it’s “an affinity group” that is open to individuals who support the United Way’s mission, with a primary focus for literacy among young children starting in pre-k. The leadership society is for individuals who give $1,000 or more to United Way’s campaign. Currently the society has over 400, close to 450 members within the affinity group.
In the past members of the society has gone out into the community to host events and projects such as book drives to donate books to school in the community, and back to school events giving out school supplies. Although Covid may have kept many of people at home, members of the society along with J.Mason Davis traveled to different schools in the community to go out to read to some kids in school.
“Well, if you go into the community and you teach a young person to read, then they can know that you have their best interests at heart. If you try to teach a young person by reading to them, you are helping them and they know that you are helping the community,” said Davis.
To learn more about J. Mason Davis Leadership Society, visit their website at uwca.org