Just last month, a senior resource officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C.,was fired for using excessive force to remove a student from a classroom. A video of the violent scene went viral. For New Orleans civil rights leader Sybil Haydel Morial, that and other recent events depicting violence against African Americans are troubling.
“Jim Crow is creeping back. And each event emboldens another group to do the same. We’re losing ground and we have to get back on the ground,” Morial said during a lecture Nov. 18, 2015, at Xavier University of Louisiana’s library resource center. She is one of the region’s most recognizable educators and civil rights advocates, and Morial shared stories from her first book,“Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment.”
Her recent autobiography is a memoir of her life experiences, dating all the way back to her childhood memories of an intolerant society governed by Jim Crow laws. Morial is the former first lady of the City of New Orleans and was married to New Orleans’s first African American mayor, Ernest “Dutch” Morial. Her son, Marc, was a two-term mayor and now is head of the National Urban League. Like their parents, the five Morial children are steeped in public service. Morial’s book allows readers to reflect on a time period in which she lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and overcame the traumatic experiences she and her family faced when her husband was elected mayor.
Dutch Morial was an equally iconic figure and was the first African American to graduate from Louisiana State University Law School in 1954. The couple battled obstructions and invectives from a segregated society, she said. In her autobiography, Morial reflects on how she challenged Brown vs. Board of Education and prevailed over the rejections of Tulane University and Loyola University.
Unlike today, Tulane and Loyola once denied African Americans the right to admission. “I could enter as a Negro student and test the waters. All they could tell me was that Negros weren’t allowed. But I still decided to try,” Morial told the Xavier audience. She vividly remembers a dean at Tulane using the words, “Unfortunately, Tulane cannot accept Negroes.” Disappointed to bear such bad news, she called her husband Dutch, to tell him what happened. Morial remained defiant even when a dean at Loyola told her, “Negroes cannot attend the same schools as whites.I hope the laws will change by the time you pursue your doctorate.” Morial urged Xavier students to become more politically active in their communities. The former public school teacher, alumni and dean at Xavier University said quality education for all is something she remains passionate about. Despite desegregated schools, the rise in police brutality of African Americans suggests that the movement isn’t over.
“I think we always knew that education would be the freedom. [Today], that still is the big key to freedom and participation in our society,” she said.“My generation is dying off, but there’s nothing like the voice to tell it’s there. I am challenging you to get involved.”