Odell Horton (1929 - 2006)

Odell Horton became the first black federal judge and assistant U.S. attorney in Tennessee since Reconstruction.  A native of Bolivar, Tenn., Horton became a U.S. district judge in western Tennessee after being nominated by President Carter and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1980.  Odell Horton was the oldest of five children of Rosa Lee McNeal and Odell Horton, born into a two-room home in Bolivar, Tennessee on May 13, 1929.  Horton's parents started their marriage as laborers at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar and later, supported their family by washing and ironing clothes, picking cotton and performing a variety of other laboring jobs. Odell Horton's first job was delivering laundry at age 6 for his mother.
Judge Horton, the only lawyer in his family, recalls several key experiences that led him to pursue a legal career:
  • Early one morning, when I was approximately eight to ten years of age, the sheriff of Hardeman County, Tennessee, and a large number of deputy sheriffs and constables, raided and searched our small two room home for "illegal liquor." His uneducated father courageously confronted the county sheriff and demanded to see a search warrant and constantly asked the sheriff why his house was being searched. The sheriff never answered my father, but, finally, told his deputies to leave the premises.  When one considers that this was a time when black people had few legally protected rights and often faced police brutality for little or no reason, my father's actions were extraordinary. 
  • A second reason why I decided to become a lawyer arose out of my experience as a "shoe shine boy" in a barber shop. One of my customers was a white lawyer who was always well dressed. He paid twenty five cents for a shoe shine when others paid ten cents. 
  • A third reason was witnessing a merciless beating of a black man by Memphis Police and a Navy shore patrolman in the segregated Trailways Bus Depot in Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly after I graduated from high school, a high school classmate and I had been in Memphis looking for work. We were waiting in the bus station to return home to Bolivar.  The police and a U.S. Navy shore patrolman entered the waiting room for "colored" and started checking tickets. If a person was asleep, that person was forcefully kicked on the front of the leg and upon waking, faced a demand to show a ticket. When one sleeping man was kicked on the leg, he yelled out "don't kick me". Instantly, an officer dealt him a very severe blow with a black jack across his forehead, knocking him to the floor. In the presence of everyone, and next to my seat, those offices kicked, stomped, and beat that man. When the man was unconscious, he was grabbed by the belt and dragged out of the bus station. That merciless beating, for no reason other than being black, left an indelible impression on me.
  • Morehouse College, B.A., 1951 
  • United States Navy School of Journalism (Certificate 1952)
  • Howard University School of Law, LL.B., 1956
  • U.S. Marine Corps, 1946-1947, 1951-1953 
  • Private practice, Memphis, Tennessee, 1957-1962 
  • Assistant U.S. attorney, Western District of Tennessee, 1962-1968 
  • Director, Division of Hospital and Health Services, City of Memphis, Tennessee, 1968 
  • Judge, Shelby County Criminal Court, Tennessee, 1969-1970 
  • President, LeMoyne-Owen College, 1970-1974 
  • Commentator, WREC-TV (CBS), 1972-1974 
  • Director, Community Health Services, Mid-South Medical Center Council, Memphis, Tennessee, 1974-1976 
  • U.S. Bankruptcy Judge, Western District of Tennessee, 1976-1980
  • Judge on the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, 1980-2006

Odell Horton received his appointment to the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter on February 27, 1980 and was confirmed by the Senate on May 9, 1980, and received his commission three days later.  He served as chief judge from 1987-1994. He assumed senior status on May 16, 1995, and served in that capacity until his death on February 22, 2006.

Judge Horton was the recipient of numerous awards for his outstanding public service, including Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard University, and Bill of Rights’ Award from the West Tennessee ACLU. Judge Horton will always be remembered by those who knew him as a “kind and gentle person who wanted fairness and justice for all who came before him.”

Judge Horton always believed that important traits for aspiring lawyers were "demeanor, patience, kindness, the ability to speak well, the ability to listen, and the ability to write well."  He was married to Evie Randolph of Bolivar, Tennessee, his wife of 52 years; marrying Evie would be among the best decisions he ever made!

On May 2, 2007, the "Clifford Davis Federal Building" in Memphis, Tennessee was  designated the "Clifford Davis and Odell Horton Federal Building" in honor of Judge Odell Horton, Sr.