This Detroit woman who fought for equal rights decades ago deserves to be remembered today
By now everyone knows, or at least thinks they know, something about Michael Brown. He was, of course, the unarmed black teenager shot to death by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson 10 days ago.
His death has reopened our eternal and eternally painful dialogue about equal rights and race. But what makes me sad is that a true civil rights movement giant died in Detroit two days ago, and almost nobody even noticed.
Fifty years ago this summer, a young black woman lawyer from Detroit named Claudia House Morcom arrived in Mississippi on a mission that really meant risking her life.
She was there to fight the system of institutionalized vicious racism that prevented black Americans from voting, and reduced them to subhuman status in virtually every way.
The very day she arrived, three other young civil rights workers were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. That was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, before the Voting Rights Act, and when the FBI was led by a man who was a blatant racist.
Years later, Claudia Morcom told me that she was scared, but felt she had no choice. She remembered that when her parents went to Mississippi, her father had to pretend to be her light-skinned mother’s chauffeur. Otherwise, somebody might have thought they were an interracial couple, and killed them.
Somebody had to do something about this, so she did. She volunteered to be part of a rotating group of lawyers who went south then. Because it was so dangerous, they were only supposed to stay for a week at a time. She stayed her week, came home, packed her bags, and went back for a year. She had nerves of steel.
She not only provided legal defense for civil rights workers, she filed federal lawsuits asking that Mississippi congressmen be thrown out of office for not representing their black constituents.
“We drew the attention of the whole world to what was happening in Mississippi, and it led to a lot of changes,” she once said. She later came back to Detroit, and became the first female African-American judge on Wayne County’s circuit court.
Morcom stayed on the bench nearly 30 years. Both then and when she “retired” she never stopped fighting for civil rights for everyone, for women, for immigrants. Last fall, in failing health, she urged President Obama to release five Cubans she regarded as political prisoners in this country.
For the past few years, I served with Judge Morcom on an advisory panel; she was warm, insightful and courteous.
Last night, Kary Moss, the head of Michigan’s ACLU, told me Morcom "was a leader during some of the most important civil rights moments in history."
"She came out of that movement very much committed to human rights generally, and never lost that commitment," she said.
My guess is that had Morcom been younger, she might have gone to Missouri to see what was going on.
She would certainly have wanted justice for Michael Brown. But in her time, Claudia House Morcom may have done far more for civil rights than all the actors in this week’s drama put together.
She deserves not to be forgotten.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.