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Holladay Journal

Utah Civil Rights leader France Davis talks about overcoming oppression and bringing about change

Feb 03, 2023 08:42AM ● By Collette Hayes

Sermon Calvary Baptist Church: Rev. France Davis, former pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church and renowned civil rights leader and activist, has strived for an entire lifetime to improve the well-being of African Americans. (Photo credit France Davis)

Latter-day Saint Church leader Brigham Young selected Green Flake, an enslaved African American and well-respected laborer, to drive Young’s covered wagon across the treacherous 1,000-mile journey to the Great Salt Lake Valley. With skill and confidence, Flake drove the wagon across the plains and navigated the team of oxen along the rough road through the Wasatch Mountains. Arriving at the head of Emigration Canyon, Brigham Young sent men including Flake ahead to forge a road into the valley. In a matter of days, the men had prepared the road. After completing the road, Flake began to cultivate the soil and to plant the first crops. The following year, Flake completed a well-built log cabin in the Holladay area for the arrival of James and Agnes Flake. 

Black History Month, recognized during February, provides an opportunity to reflect on the achievements and contributions African Americans have made and the significant roles they have played in United States history. Each year, a theme is selected by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The Black history theme for 2023, “Black Resistance,” explores how African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression. 

Anti-literacy laws in Southern states were enacted between 1740 and 1834, prohibiting anyone from teaching enslaved and free people of color to read or to write. This was one of the first ways African Americans resisted oppression. To gain literacy, African Americans who couldn’t read often sought out anyone who would teach them. Learning to read and to write provided opportunities to speak out against discrimination. 

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation laws did not violate the U.S. Constitution as long as the facilities for each race were equal in quality. It was at this time that African Americans began to find ways to make things separate but equal.

Rev. France Davis, former pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church and renowned civil rights leader and activist, has strived for an entire lifetime to improve the well-being of African Americans. Few can compare to the accomplishments he has made toward equality and basic human rights. Davis holds several degrees: a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric from the University of California at Berkeley, a bachelor’s degree in religion from Westminster College, a master’s in mass communication from the University of Utah and a master’s in ministry from Northwest Nazarene University. 

Under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery Improvement Association was a group formed to resist the separate but not equal treatment toward African Americans. Davis marched at the side of King from Selma to Montgomery to try to ensure that everyone had the right to register and to vote. 

In 1972, Davis moved to Utah to begin a teaching fellowship at the University of Utah where he continued to teach for 40 years in the Department of Communications and Ethnic Studies.

“When I first came to Utah, I discovered that fair housing was not available in the state of Utah regardless of skin color,” Davis said. “I had rented a place sight unseen and had a phone installed. When I showed up and met the landlord, he said the place wasn’t available. This event precipitated my interest in fair housing, and finally with others I was able to get a fair housing bill passed through the legislature.”

In a recent conversation, Davis pointed out how through history many African Americans have resisted oppression. In the 1940s, African Americans began to resist physically beginning with Jackie Robinson being the first African American to play major league baseball. In 1954, Brown versus Board of Education ruled against racial segregation in public schools because it violated the 14th Amendment. In 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and decided she would not give up her seat to another person simply because of a difference in skin color. More recently, with the George Floyd incident, African Americans have resisted by insisting police departments change the disparate treatment of cases and treat African Americans the same way they treat other people.

There are three main areas where Davis feels change is needed to further help African Americans rise above oppression. Politically, more African Americans need to register to vote, run for office and become elected. African Americans need to be appointed to board of directors, both those that are voluntary and those that are paid. Economically, African Americans need to be included with the higher-level employees as well as the lower. In the educational system, African American contributions need to be acknowledged throughout the year, not just emphasized in February. 

Davis’s advice to all young people is first to learn as much as you can about yourself and then to learn as much as you can about people that are different than you. Finally, appreciate the differences and celebrate the achievements that people of other colors than your own have made.

“The message that I have for young people is, all of us are in this boat together. If one end of the boat sinks for one particular group such as the African Americans, the boat will take on water and sink for the others because we are all in the boat together,” Davis said. “Thus, we have to work together in order to bring about positive change.”