Reverend Dr. Calvin Morris '59 recalls a saying his father used to recite, “you have to understand that nobody is better than you and you are not better than anybody else either.” Morris was born into a family of social justice activists. He remembers his parents participating in a boycott of the Philadelphia Transportation Company in the '40s to protest the company’s refusal to hire black workers. Morris says, “They taught me that protest was one way of trying to bring about change.”
The fact that Morris grew up to become a prominent civil rights activist is no surprise. The Morris family routinely read four to five newspapers a day and then discussed the articles in depth together. This sparked Morris’ interests in current events. As a child, he noticed the lack of black characters in books and begged his mother to find books with people who looked like him. It was a nearly impossible task in those days.
Morris describes his Friends Select experience as “extraordinary” and notes that he still maintains friendships with some of his classmates. However, school was not without its challenges for Morris. He was one of very few black students at the time. He says, “I wouldn’t necessarily call it racism, but I experienced discrimination and prejudice within families. Kids wanted to invite me to their parties, but their parents wouldn’t let them for fear of what the neighbors would say. We started to host our own parties.”
At Friends Select, Morris participated in the Friends Work Camp, which visited the municipal court and attended meetings with spiritual leader Father Divine. He also recalls students raising money for the Montgomery protesters and pack- ing clothes to send to Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution. Morris says, “A group of us visited prisons and inner-city areas. Many of us were involved with ideas of non-violence.”
Morris went on to Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, graduating cum laude in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in history. At Boston University, he earned a master’s degree in history in 1964 and received a degree in theology in 1967. Morris was also ordained in the United Methodist Church.
While on a glee club tour of southern black colleges, Morris met Jesse Jackson and the two formed a longstanding friendship. Jackson asked him to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He served as associate director and national coordinator at SCLC, where he worked directly with Coretta Scott King. He also went on to serve as executive director of Atlanta's Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. Morris became friends with influential civil rights activists, including John Lewis, Rosa Parks and Andrew Young.
When asked what the most important issues facing our country are today, Morris believes that eight years of Obama have “galvanized people who always had a discomfort about race and black culture.” He says, “We are back at people’s willingness to say things that they haven’t been saying for 40 years. They now say things boldly and proudly.”
Morris wants students to know that though they are young, they often have more influence than they realize. He says, “Write articles, send letters to newspapers, walk and struggle together.” He emphasizes the importance of study- ing your own family’s history. “Most students have a family history that is not unrelated to people who come here for different reasons,” says Morris.
While Morris points out “there are real dangers that necessitate people to be vigilant and engaged in what is going on,” he is comforted by the fact that so many young people are now determined to get involved to bring about change. He says, “Students should be open to other perspectives. Learn from what your opponent is saying. Young people should have an awareness of how important it is to learn, grow and study so you have an ability to analyze what is going on.”