Morris and the Early Civil Rights Movement
An Advocate for Full and Equal Rights
Morris had an expansive vision of freedom that went beyond his antislavery work. Like the activists leading the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Morris’s activism was multifaceted. In addition to abolitionism, he worked tirelessly to desegregate schools, militias, and public spaces, and was a full-throated advocate of equal voting rights for women.
A little over a year after Morris’s 1847 admission to the Massachusetts Bar, he was hired by Boston printer and activist Benjamin Roberts to handle a high-profile civil rights lawsuit. Roberts asked Morris to sue the Boston public schools on behalf of his five-year-old daughter, Sarah. In February 1848, a Boston police officer forcibly removed Sarah from the public school that was closest to the Roberts home. Because of the color of her skin, the young child was forced to make the longer journey to the Abiel Smith School, which was, at the time, one of two Boston public schools for Black children.
“The most important achievement on the part of our people and that which will be the most enduring, and prove most beneficial in its results to us and our children here and elsewhere was the abolition of Caste Schools in our Commonwealth. I had the honor to inaugurate that excellent and important measure, & to frame and pen the first petition sent to the School Committee here asking for Equal School rights. I had previously secured such rights to the children of color at Salem, my native city, and was determined to overthrow the separate school system here”
Morris witnessed and endured discrimination on many different fronts and responded by fighting a multi-front war for full and equal rights. He battled segregated schools and militias. He endured the sting of prejudice when traveling by carriage or railroad, and protested segregated transportation, theaters, hotels, and similar public places. He challenged housing discrimination, speaking out publicly when racist homeowners derailed his purchase of a new family home, “carrying prejudice against color to its extreme extent.” He advocated for expansive voting rights. His political activism used different strategies to pursue this broad agenda of equality, and he worked with different allies towards common goals.
“[Morris] struck terrible blows at the exclusive school system for Negroes in Boston. He availed himself also of every opportunity that offered to annoy the railroad companies. He would go in person to theatres, lecture rooms, churches, and other public places, buy his ticket and force the employes [sic] to eject him, then he would carry the matter into the courts. In this way Mr. Morris succeeded in breaking up a barbarous custom of exclusion on account of color.”