Ruthie and Edward Morris fought for racial justice in north Louisiana
“Neither of us had any fear of challenging wrong or injustice wherever it existed.” Reverend Edward Morris, longtime Minden resident, and his wife Ruthie were pioneers of civil rights in north Louisiana in the ‘60s. They were instrumental in the racial integration of education and business in Union Parish.
Ruthie Morris passed away in 2015. A book telling her story is in the works, but Edward shared a condensed version of their story with the Press-Herald.
While Ruthie was on summer break from college in the summer of 1959, she worked at Skinner’s Café in Bernice, Louisiana. One day, Senator John F. Kennedy and his campaign group stopped for lunch. Kennedy spoke to Ruthie briefly about the sad state of race relations in the South.
“He whispered to her, ‘If I win, things are going to change in the country,’” said Edward. “The café was segregated, and Jim Crow Law was the law of the South. Those words by Senator Kennedy were the encouragement that would later lead Ruthie and me to fight for civil rights and school integration in Union Parish Schools.”
The Morrises first decided that something had to be done when a black friend in Lillie, Louisiana claimed he had been deliberately deterred from filing to run for mayor. After meeting with the district civil rights attorney, they decided the best way to begin fighting for civil rights was to file a lawsuit demanding the integration of the public school system in Union Parish.
“This was the beginning of a long and challenging journey,” Edward said. “We knew some blacks, because of fear, would not be supportive. There were some blacks who were even afraid to trade at Westside Service Center [owned by the Morrises], the only full-service gas station owned and operated by blacks in Union Parish. This was a time for courage, insight, vision, bravery, intelligence and determination. Fear was not an option.”
The Morrises gained several allies in their venture, and in 1967 the suit was filed in federal court in Monroe.
According to Edward, it took less than an hour for the federal judge to rule on the case. Union Parish was ordered to integrate its public school system with all deliberate speed the following fall.
“The parish supervisor, Mr. George Cole, said to me, ‘Morris, this should have been done before now; times are changing, and we must change with the times or be lost in the changes,’” Edward said.
The next day, Ruthie was invited to take a leave from Webster Parish, where she taught music, to help integrate the Union Parish school system. After prayer and discussion, she agreed.
Ruthie Morris became the first black teacher hired in the Union Parish integrated school system. Vera L. Jones following her lead soon after. That fall, children from three black families, including the Morrises, became the first to attend the previously all-white Bernice High School.
“Everything went well without incident,” Edward said. “Every day an unmarked car of FBI agents escorted Ruthie to Farmerville and Downsville High Schools followed by a state trooper to protect the rear if it became necessary.”
Soon Ruthie, Edward, and others turned their efforts to another front: leading the charge against black discrimination in the workplace.
“The next civil rights issue was to hire blacks at the Bernice Garment Factory,” Edward said. “We informed the factory manager that black people paid taxes just like whites to get the factory to locate in Bernice, and he was discriminating against tax payers of color.”
The civil rights leaders threatened to file suit if the manager refused to cooperate.
“The manager sat there looking like a bullfrog caught in a hailstorm,” Edward said. “After chewing on his ink pen until his lips turned blue with ink, he relented and hired Ruthie the next week. We continued to push for the right for blacks to be hired until at least a third or more were black workers.”
Ruthie was pregnant with her third child while employed at the garment factory, but she never allowed that to stand in the way of progress for the black community, Edward said. The Morrises moved back to Minden in the fall of 1968.
“The main objectives had been accomplished,” Edward said.
Ruthie and Edward Morris remained in Minden and were employed by the Webster Parish school system until retirement.
“We were instrumental in helping white mothers in Minden to eliminate the demons of racial fears when they had to face the reality that their children must attend school with black children,” Edward said.
The Morris family and the family of Ezell Smith allowed white mothers to meet in their homes to “discuss their unfounded fears.”
“Those white mothers soon realized there was nothing to fear but fear itself,” Edward said. “After three or four meetings, they realized that blacks weren’t any different from themselves and that blacks desired the same thing as they did: a peaceful coexistence and transition toward a better education for all children.”
Edward cited numerous Bible verses as examples of Ruthie’s life, including Romans 12:2, which reads, “And be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
“Ruthie and I didn’t intend for our children to grow up in a segregated school system or society,” Edward said. “Jim Crow law and segregation had to go. We had a new mindset that had been renewed, and we didn’t conform to the world’s standard.”
The Morrises continued to be active in their efforts until Ruthie passed away on May 17, 2015.
“She was a team player with intelligence strength, courage, and bravery for civil rights, Christian education, and secular education,” Edward said. “God was her head coach, teacher, and trainer. Her work continues, her hope still lives, and her dream shall never die.”