Morris leaves too many hats
Leonard Morris’ first run for public office was an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the South Panola School District Board of Trustees in 1977.
He got beat.
Morris tried again in 1978 and won. Several years later he told us how he did it:
School board elections during those years – scarcely a decade after the first blacks since Reconstruction had registered to vote in Panola County – were held on Saturdays in the local gymnasium and were usually even more low profile than today. Morris said that his supporters turned out early and in good numbers on that election day in 1977. The turnout so alarmed the white supporters of his opponent that they got on the telephone and mobilized enough people to turn the election for the opponent.
The following year, when the seat on that board was open for a full term, Morris ran again. This time, he would tell us later, he had urged his supporters to wait until the afternoon before they came to vote. It worked and Morris was elected.
Morris’ service on the school board during his first term so proved his leadership abilities, fairness and congeniality that when the term ended, no opponent ran against him when he sought re-election.
Morris would remain unopposed in subsequent re-election bids until he left the school board to run for state representative in 1992.
His first run for state representative was successful, but it was so unexpected that it even caught the leadership of the state’s Black Legislative Caucus by surprise. Morris took on a popular white incumbent in a majority white district. He won not because voters were displeased with the incumbent, but because by then voters respected Morris’ record. Morris never made race an issue, a quality that enabled him to be respected by a large majority of his constituency.
His record included a commitment to education – from having started as a young classroom teacher in Lambert to his election, while serving on the South Panola district school board, as president of the Mississippi School Boards Association.
By then Morris’ experience also included having served as the Batesville Housing Authority’s Relocation Officer, as executive director of the North Delta Planning and Development District and as a valued member of dozens of volunteer committees in government, business and in his beloved First Concord M.B. Church.
Morris went to Jackson as a trusted consensus builder in his district. He quickly put those qualities to worthwhile use in state government as well and quickly earned the respect of his colleagues in the legislature and the governors with whom he served.
At the time of his death, Morris was chairman of the powerful Medicaid Committee and also served on the Constitution, Education, Fees and Salaries of Public Officers, Hurricane Recovery and Municipalities and Ways and Means Committees.
Morris also helped steer the Panola Partnership as a member of its board of directors and twice served as interim CEO. His finesse in economic development and state and local government made seamless the transitions from one Partnership CEO to the next.
In addition to his duties in state government and his work with the Partnership, Morris was an exemplary husband and father. He made a living as a Realtor and still he continued to serve in many volunteer and advisory positions. Leonard Morris could say no, but he didn’t say it often. He simply saw too many needs that he felt worth giving of his time.
He would laugh of his many "hats," about taking off his "real estate hat" to put on his "legislator’s hat" to go to Jackson. He said it in jest, but those of us who heard it respected him because he knew the difference. He kept separate his private business interests and the public’s business.
The shock and disbelief we expressed to each other late Friday as news of Leonard’s death passed through the community was based in our sudden collective realization of how much we depended on him, how many roles he played, how many "hats" he wore.
Leonard Morris was large in life, and in the coming weeks and months we will realize just how large. During these coming weeks and months, his beloved wife and daughters will cope with their loss also. They will have our prayers and reassurances that Leonard Morris’ legacy will be remembered. They will also have our thanks for having shared him with us during his time too brief.