Few people seem as qualified to survey the rocky road of racial progress in this country as Morial. For starters, there is his background in New Orleans, a roiling gumbo of French, Spanish, Native American, and African influences that he characterizes as “a mature city before it was an American city,” a onetime slave port and entry point for travelers headed inland via the Mississippi River. By the 1960s and 1970s New Orleans was slowly evolving from its segregated past, and Morial witnessed these changes as a child, in small ways like being allowed to play for the first time against the white teams in the city’s sandlot football league, or being one of the first black students at newly desegregated city schools.
“It was a very interesting time in New Orleans, and Marc was in an interesting position there,” recalls Ellis Henican, a childhood friend who went to school with Morial and now writes a column for New York Newsday and is a regular commentator on Fox News Channel. “Marc was a tremendously charming, articulate, self-confident kid in an environment that would have drained that out of almost anybody.”
Morial also saw the city’s evolution writ large in the efforts of his parents, Sybil and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, and others who were in the vanguard of the civil-rights movement in the South. Dutch Morial was the son of a sharecropper and among the first of his family’s generation to attend college, and would later become the first black student to earn a law degree from Louisiana State University, the first since Reconstruction to be elected to the Louisiana House and, eventually, the first black mayor of New Orleans. He also served as the head of the local branch of the NAACP.
Morial remembers his parents being involved in “everything conceivable” in the community and considering those activities as important as the jobs that paid them a living wage. As a 6- or 7-year-old, he would accompany his father to his law office on Saturday mornings, then spend the rest of the day with him stopping by community events, meetings, or political rallies. Those experiences are the ones that shaped his views and affected the path his life would take in ways he was not even aware of at the time, he now says.
Dutch Morial didn’t push his son into politics; rather, he counseled him to follow the examples of second-generation Irish, Italians, and Jews. “‘Study them,’ he’d say,” Marc recalls. “‘The first generation got involved in politics in the big cities, and the second generation concentrated on building businesses and economic infrastructure.’”
The political bug had already bitten, though, according to Henican:
“Marc was always interested in political stuff. I remember him telling me as a seventh- or eighth-grader about how you could go and be a page at the state legislature, and they’d pay you what sounded like a princely sum, it was probably something like $25 a day. Considering the amount of money I had in my pocketand I’m sure he had in hisit seemed like a lot. As time went on, we were both drawn to that.”
First came a sojourn north to Philadelphia and Penn, where he arrived in the fall of 1976 with money for cab fare from the airport to take him to a school he had never seen before and where he knew no one save for a fellow Jesuit High graduate who was three years ahead of him.
Still, the choice of Penn was not as odd as it may seem. Morial’s parents were familiar with the Northeasthis mother had attended Boston University and married his father in Boston, and they might have stayed there had Dutch Morial not returned to the South in the late 1950s to work as a civil-rights lawyer, Marc says. And both parents stressed education first and foremost.
“It was set, quite frankly, at a very early age in my life that we were going to school in the Ivy League,” he says. “My parents preached that you were going to go to the best school you could get into.”
He soon found his way on campus, becoming active in the Black Student League and friendly with some of the players on the 1978-79 basketball team that reached the NCAA Final Four. Morial felt the pull of the corporate world as he watched some classmates lining up for positions with Fortune 500 companiesbut two events served to reinforce his roots and dull the allure of a management-track job.
One occurred during the fall of his sophomore year, when, after working a construction job in New Orleans, he stayed on to help with his father’s successful mayoral campaign in the fall of 1977. The other came during the summer between his junior and senior years when he worked in Washington for Louisiana Senator Russell Long, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and one of the four or five most powerful men in Congress. Morial sat in on meetings that involved the likes of Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Dole. It was heady stuff for a 21-year-old, even one with a big-city mayor for a father.
“That was an unbelievable experience,” Morial says. “I think that exposure was very much a turning point.”
Morial’s experience at Penn was also shaped by the takeover of College Hall and subsequent sit-in of March 1978. What began as a volley of protest over the cutting of arts programs and several minor sports teams quickly morphed into a forum on university governance and student input. Black students seized on an opportunity to have their concerns heard, and by the time a list of resolutions was put on paper after nearly four days of negotiating, 10 of the 31 involved minority representation on Penn’s campus, including a commitment to form what became the United Minorities Council.
“I think the African-American students thought, ‘People are protesting about a hockey team, and we have some ways we think the University ought to respond to us better,’” Morial says. “It was a little bit of piggybacking and a little bit of us thinking about getting what we thought were some more serious demands on the table.”
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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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