By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Nearly 60 years ago, a man with no more than an eighth-grade education took the helm of a recently founded organization committed to civil rights for all.
This week, the Tupelo-Lee County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will recognize its first president, John T. Morris, at its annual Freedom Fund banquet Friday at the Summit Center.
“Many people ask if the NAACP is still relevant today,” said member and event organizer Jim Casey. “I say, ‘Hell, yes,’ because we stand on some strong shoulders like Morris’ … who made sacrifices for the citizens of Lee County.”
Morris was born in 1919 and lived his entire life in Nettleton, where he worked as a farmer, truck driver, railroad employee and eventually a supervisor at Purnell’s Pride, according to a biography provided by his family. When the civil rights era emerged, Morris risked his safety to head the county’s newly founded NAACP chapter.
He faced death threats targeting him and his family and road blocks set up just to catch him. And he survived an attempt on his life when a commercial truck sought him out and struck him.
During this time, Morris worked with Nettleton school officials after desegregation to ensure fair treatment of minority teachers and administrators, Casey said. He also combated racial discrimination at Purnell’s Pride Chicken.
“We fought that issue together,” said Cliff Dixon Sr., who had served with Morris and recalls times of great hardship.
“I set up a boycott at Howard Bros. Discount Store in Tupelo,” Dixon said. “That was 1985, because a young black man was beaten. We asked that they dismiss the manager, assistant manager and security guard, and they refused.”
The three eventually stepped down after the boycott, Dixon said, but not until he had threats made against his life.
Now 75 years old, Dixon had served as president of the local NAACP during the 1980s. He said each decade brought with it some improvements but that much work remains before racial harmony prevails.
“We have come a long way,” he said, “but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Morris stepped down from the helm of the organization in 1967, after 13 years at the post, but remained active in the NAACP until suffering a heart attack in 1981.
His legacy will be remembered Friday.
“We’re going to reflect on the past,” Casey said, “but look forward to the future.”