Joshua Morse III, Law School Dean Who Defied Segregation, Dies at 89
Joshua Morse III, who as dean of the University of Mississippi School of Law in the 1960s defied segregationist tradition by admitting the schools first black students, a move that led to the desegregation of Mississippi’s legal profession and judiciary, died last Friday at his home in Tallahassee, Fla. He was 89.
His family announced the death.
In a time of civil rights marches and often violent racial strife in the Deep South, Mr. Morse challenged prejudice and parochialism by fostering a markedly progressive period at the school. He used Ford Foundation money to recruit minority students, promoted a student legal assistance program for the poor, exposed students to liberal ideas and hired Ivy League professors from the North.
But his efforts lasted only six years. Pitted against the state’s legal establishment, he stepped down in 1969, and the school reverted to more conservative leadership.
Mr. Morse admitted Ole Miss first black law students in 1963, a year after James Meredith became the first black to enroll at the university, a watershed event in the civil rights struggle. By 1967 black enrollment at the law school had expanded to about 20 in a student body of 360.
Black graduates were soon admitted to the state bar, joining a legal fraternity defined by alumni of Ole Miss, which Time magazine called the prep school for political power in Mississippi.
Reuben Anderson, the first black graduate of the school, in 1968, went on to become the first black appointee to the State Supreme Court and the first black president of the Mississippi bar. The school first black woman to graduate, Constance Slaughter-Harvey, in 1970, became the first black woman to be named a judge in Mississippi.
Mr. Morse achievements remain legend in legal education circles. John Egerton, in his 1991 book, Shades of Gray: Dispatches From the Modern South, wrote: The Ole Miss Law School six-year orbit into activism was a spectacular aberration, a reversal of form that briefly turned a conservative institution into one of the most progressive and experimental in the nation.
Joshua Marion Morse III was born on March 1, 1923, in Poplarville, Miss., a sawmill town. He was a graduate of Ole Miss and its law school and served in the Army during World War II.
After law school he joined his father’s law practice in Poplarville, where he defended 23 people accused of murder and won not-guilty verdicts for 22. (The 23rd was convicted of a lesser charge.) He successfully defended several black men who had violent altercations with the police.
Mr. Morse joined the Ole Miss faculty as an associate professor in 1962 and was named dean in 1963. Instead of starting immediately, however, he attended Yale on a one-year graduate fellowship. But before he left, he helped orchestrate admission offers to several black students.
When he returned, he brought two Yale graduates with him to teach. The next year he hired another and received a $437,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to recruit minorities. In 1965, he invited eight Yale professors to teach two-week courses on individual rights. The next semester, he brought a group of Harvard professors to lecture on federalism. Professors from Columbia and New York University came later.
He ended up hiring new graduates of Yale Law School to fill 8 of 21 positions. Besides teaching, they prepared federal lawsuits on voting rights and civil liberties and recruited students for a legal assistance program for the poor.
In 1966, when state education officials sought to rescind an invitation to the liberal Democratic senator Robert F. Kennedy to speak at the law school, Mr. Morse threatened to resign. Mr. Kennedy spoke to an appreciative audience.
Mississippi’s legal and political establishment began to see the school as a hotbed of revolution, where students were brainwashed by liberal one-worlders. The Mobile Press, in neighboring Alabama, said the school had chosen to smugly point the finger of scorn at the entire South.
Mr. Morse answered that he was trying to make students aware of a world beyond Mississippi to let them know â€œthat there were places to look other than across the street or at the courthouse.
The state bar association made its feelings clear in 1968 when he was not invited to speak at its annual meeting, though the speech by the Ole Miss law dean was historically a high point of the program. He was also denied a salary increase, though all his underlings received one. Read More
Story courtesy of the New York Times
Photo courtesy of the University of Mississippi