Opinion – 1/26/2007

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 26, 2007

The Panolian: OPINIONS – Billy Davis

From the 01/05/07 issue of The Panolian        

Morris ‘famously’ could work with anybody

In that city by the river located north of us, Steve Cohen is the successor to the District 9 Congressional seat formerly held by Harold Ford Jr.

The political Web site reported this week that Cohen, who is white, "is not joining the Congressional Black Caucus after several current and former members made it clear that a white lawmaker was not welcome."

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Cohen, a Democrat, believed joining the caucus was the "right thing to do" since the district he represents includes Memphis and hence is majority-black. But he backed away after viewing a memo from a caucus co-founder that suggested the group should remain "exclusively African American."

After Leonard Morris passed away January 12, I attempted several times over the past weeks to write a commentary about the late state representative and self-employed Realtor. When I read the story about Cohen and the Black Caucus, I knew then how to write about my friend Leonard.

The death of Mr. Morris, who was 59, hit me in the gut. A newspaper reporter has few friends on the other end of the office telephone, but I considered Leonard a friend, which is especially rare since he was an elected official.

I attribute that feeling to Leonard’s character more than his political acumen, and anyone who knew Leonard can share a similar story that he truly was a friend to anybody he knew.

I usually interviewed Leonard when he was working in his real estate office just down the street. Over the last year he kept my ear to the phone talking about economic development, namely the need to lure high-paying industrial jobs to offset the below-average pay of local retail jobs.

We rarely talked about racial issues, but Leonard’s opinion to me on that subject was that everybody wants the same thing ? good schools, a home of their own and a good-paying job ? regardless of their skin color.

"Everybody wants enough in the bank to make it ’til payday," he told me more than once.

And that’s what makes Cohen’s predicament so hurtful. Black neighborhoods in inner-city Memphis struggle with poverty, crime and broken homes, which are the same issues faced by blacks in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. According to the logic of the Black Caucus, however, the color of Cohen’s skin determines his membership rather than the skin color of Cohen’s constituents.

In today’s political environment, black elected officials seem to face a choice in their role as a community leader: either preach a race-based gospel of "us vs. them," which rallies the faithful but achieves little, or behave like Rep. Leonard Morris, who famously could work with anybody.

Leonard likely never forgot the racial troubles and trials he endured before and after winning a seat on the South Panola school board in 1978, but somehow he moved on. While some black leaders demand reparations, Leonard realized a better life for blacks and whites begins with quality public schools and a two-parent home.

Leonard could have chosen to carry a grudge about the past. Instead, he attributed troubles to people who are ignorant, not an ignorant people. His life demonstrated that same belief.

On January 12, at a hospital in Jackson, Leonard moved on to a final stop where there are no hateful words, no hurting hearts and no caucus for black souls or white souls.

When I’m met there one day by my parents, my grandparents and other relatives and friends, I look forward to meeting Leonard, too. He always greeted me with a firm handshake and a warm smile, and I already miss them both.


(Billy Davis can be reached billyd@panolian.com or by writing to P. O. Box 1616, Batesville, MS 38696.)

Copyright 2001-2007 by Batesville Newspapers, LLC.  All rights reserved
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