Paul Morganstern was killed 50 years ago
Last week, the family of civil rights activist Paul Morganstern visited Mississippi to see where he worked and died.
Morganstern, a Connecticut native working at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in the summer of 1968, was driving to Jackson when a drunk driver crossed the center line and killed him at what was known as 1-Mile Hill in Yazoo County. The Lawyers’ Committee and other activists suspected he had been murdered due to his civil rights advocacy.
Following the wreck, Paul’s father and mother did not travel to Mississippi, and, it was not until forty-nine years later, meaning Valentine’s Day, 2018, that Paul’s sister and friends, including me, arrived in Mississippi to celebrate his life and find out more about his death.
First, we wanted to honor him at 1-Mile Hill, but we had no idea where it was. Fortunately, Yazoo County Deputy Jackie Hudson had connected us to Sheriff Jacob Sheriff (actually his name) and Chief Deputy Joseph Head, both of whom offered to accompany us to the abandoned road.
Sheriff Sheriff, acting as historian and counselor, said that Paul was killed on August 17, 1968, but his contributions to mankind never ended.
Sheriff talked about how civil rights activists are an essential part of Mississippi’s history, adding that, “I can speak from personal experience and I’d say that, due to people like Paul, a lot of positive changes have occurred in Mississippi.”
The sheriff told us he realized that we had come to Mississippi to be present for Paul, and in a certain sense, to complete the circle of his life. He suggested that we follow the Department’s cars to the site of Paul’s death and share what was on our hearts. We went to old Highway 49, each of us shared something about Paul’s all-too-short life.
Paul’s sister found a comfortable niche under a pine tree for a stone naming Paul as “Advocate” and the sheriff announced a cross will be erected nearby. The men from the Sheriff’s Department spoke extemporaneously, and, in comments that brought tears, they pointed out that, “for sure, Paul will never be forgotten, because he gave of himself so all of us secure our civil rights.” Paul was forgotten no longer.
As someone who never met Paul, I wondered what could be helpful 49 years after his death. But as the sheriff spoke, I realized Paul’s spirit stayed around long after his death certificate was signed. I felt a rush of pride in all civil rights workers, humbled that they gave their lives so all Americans can vote, eat together and travel together.
The Yazoo officials told us that those who die will live longer than a normal life span if they give their lives for others.
Paul’s death will motivate others to follow his path, and, though pessimists suspect a violent death will deter others, the actual effect is just the opposite.
I had never witnessed anything that would qualify as a miracle, but on that day there was a feeling that we were connecting human beings over vast amounts of time and space.
Paul seemed to have returned, not in a physical sense, but as a spirit being welcomed by the teamwork of Yazoo’s residents and the out-of-towners. There are two things that made me suspect something transcendent was happening.
Deputy Head played a gospel song about the Golden Rule and then Sheriff Sheriff played Midnite, a song written by Brent Jones and that describes an event taking place at the very hour Morganstern died.
Hello my child
See you on ya knees
It must be midnight
I know you’re sad
But I’m so glad
You took the time out
To call me
You must be in trouble, yeah
I heard emergency and I came on the double
Midnight’s the only time
That I can hear from you
Oh how I wish you’d call me
When your skies are blue
Civil Rights In Jackson, Mississippi
“Mississippi had gotten to Paul the way it does reach some people – its skies, its soil, its terror, its brutality, its surging and enveloping heat, the heaviness of its air, its courage, fears and faces of its people, both black and white.” – Jim Tripp, Paul’s roommate, 1969
In the spring of 1968, the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council (LSCRRC) placed Paul Morganstern at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in Jackson. LSCRRC, founded in 1963, had lofty long-term goals. A 1968 Hastings Law School newsletter envisioned a rosy future for the interns: “Possibly when the youthful members of the Council become the junior and senior men in important law firms and in government offices, many of them will carry their knowledge and their liberalism with them.”
Paul Morganstern never became a senior man in a law office. Instead, perhaps as a way to offer condolences to the Morganstern family, LSCRRC published a flyer featuring Paul and a colleague sitting next to KKK graffiti on a Mississippi bridge.
Before the tragic accident, Paul investigated police brutality, took affidavits to seat black delegates at the Democratic National Convention, researched a Fifth Amendment case, supported a boycott of white businesses, and helped students who had been expelled from their college without due process. In his spare time, he investigated discriminatory hiring policies, looked into swimming pools that banned black kids and researched the rights of debtors.
Coming from a childhood living in an interracial community, Paul was shocked by Mississippi’s legal system. In one case that Paul observed, a white defendant was charged for an assault on a black man. Even though the defendant admitted he hit the plaintiff, “two or 3 times in the face causing considerable injury,” he was found not guilty by an all-white jury.
Paul’s favorite project was research into how to apply federal statute 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 in cases of police misconduct. He argued that when states ignored the constitutional rights of its citizens, Section 1983 should be the vehicle for bringing lawsuits in federal court.
As the summer progressed, Paul became fascinated with the men and women who fought back, in spite of overwhelming odds. One hero was John Otis Sumrall, a man who refused to submit to the draft, because “there were no Negroes on the local (draft) board….” A fierce critic of Jim Crow, Sumrall was arrested several times and faced a long prison sentence. Jason Morgan Ward, in Power, Poverty and Peace, wrote that Sumrall had been arrested when he “staged sit-ins at local diners and led a wade-in at the Clarkco State Park’s whites-only swimming beach.”
At some point, Sumrall’s draft board discovered that the thorn in their side could be sent to Vietnam if Sumrall’s criminal record was purged. Accordingly, the district attorney dismissed all charges and Sumrall was ordered to report for induction. Sumrall, fearless and determined, refused to step forward. In December, 1968, Sumrall lost his final appeal and was sentenced to five years in federal prison. After his release, and long after Paul died, Sumrall changed his name to Yahya Shabazz and wrote books on Islamic Law. There is little doubt that, had he lived, Paul would admire Shabazz’s perseverance.
Paul realized his efforts were likely to fail: “(I saw that) … a young man (was) beaten by a deputy sheriff. His case is one which this office probably will not handle, but (my) memo was written…well, for posterity.” It seems clear that Paul knew his work was valuable, even if victories were not realized for generations.
Jim Tripp, Paul’s roommate in Jackson, described how Paul retained his positive attitude: “Paul was a student radical. He often referred to himself, both seriously and jokingly, as a ‘white, Jew, Commie radical’….” Paul loved the underdogs, even the Vietnamese nationalists who faced the wrath of the United States: “He… knew he was not a pacifist because he supported the military efforts of the Vietcong in Vietnam.”
Paul envisioned the possibility of a major confrontation: “The strength of numbers and economic suasion – and, yes even of force, may be necessary to persuade the powers that be to abdicate some of that power and wealth to the toilers.”
His co-workers kept their spirits up by sharing their respect for Paul. On July 29, for example, staff attorney Ike Madison wrote to Paul: “The memo you did on the applicability of section 1983 to state official bonds reflected a very thorough job. I wish I could exchange places with you. Office work just kills me. Power, Ike.”
The greatest tonic for Paul’s soul was his vibrant neighborhood where his best friends were black neighbors. Jim Tripp: “In the mornings before going to the Lawyers’ Committee office on Farish Street in Jackson and, in the evenings, Paul usually played with our neighbors on Florence Avenue. He naturally loved them and they loved him.”
Statement by Larry Aschenbrenner
Chief Counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in 1968, Jackson, Mississippi
Paul Morganstern was one of the young law clerks who traveled the dusty back roads of rural hamlets and towns drafting and notarizing these affidavits. These sworn statements showed that countless whites flatly refused to let Blacks register. Paul was driving back to Jackson from Yazoo City after collecting evidence for our challenge when he was tragically struck by a drunken driver who was on the wrong side of the highway.
Paul was very serious while at the job and absolutely dedicated to the Movement. But he was also fun loving, gregarious and liked by all, young and old. Summers are long and hot in Jackson with virtually no air conditioning in the Black community. Swimming was about the only way to stay cool. But private pools were non-existent in Black neighborhoods. Further, rivers and streams close by were infested with cottonmouths and Mayor Thompson had closed the municipal pool rather than admit Black children.
Blacks were still barred from motel chains which remained segregated, contrary to the Civil Rights Law of 1964. About the only pools where Blacks were welcome were the pools of large, integrated chain motels. I recall several happy Sunday afternoons with Paul, at one of those pools, along with a Black couple from our office without kids and Katy and our four kids, 10, 8, 6 and 4. Paul and I and the couple took turns tossing the kids into the pool to the delight and wonderment of all. I have thought of Paul many times over the last 50 years and know what a terrible blow his loss must have been to his folks and family. To all of the Morganstern family and friends, God bless you all.
Growing Up With Radicals
Paul Morganstern’s journey began in Village Creek, Connecticut, a community near Norwalk. Founded in 1949, Village Creek was multi-racial and governed democratically. It was filled with liberals and radicals, some of whom had been blacklisted in the 1950s. Typical of his mentors was resident Frank J. Donner, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Project on Political Surveillance. As he grew more aware of the world beyond his neighborhood, Paul learned that Village Creek might be a utopia, but it was also a target for anti-Communists, especially the supporters of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Some critics nicknamed his village “Commie Creek” and alleged that his home’s flat roof might be flashing signals to Soviet bombers that might attack the United States in World War II.
Through adolescence, Paul listened to World War II veterans talking about war and human rights in Europe. Others told him how Jews and blacks were mistreated in the South and North. Resident Emily Oppenheimer, quoted in Connecticut Magazine, recalled that, “Jews back then couldn’t even have lunch in a hotel in Greenwich.” At Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Paul joined the NAACP and declared that he intended to go to medical school.
When he was a teenager, there were auspicious events that shaped Paul’s future path, one of which occurred in the summer of 1963 when Paul attended Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. Near the Reflecting Pool, eighteen-year-old Paul realized that he was standing next to none other than Rev. King.
After graduation from Boston University, Paul entered Howard Law, confident that the historically black school was the best place to study civil rights. In his first year, he heard that 51 long-haired students had been suspended from his former high school in Norwalk.
The school board was claiming that long hair was dangerous because disruptions could follow and girls might even try to wear pants. During winter break, Paul returned to his alma mater and cheered on his former classmates. As an alumnus and law school student, he was a sensation; the students learned about the First Amendment and recognized Paul’s fearlessness and charisma. In February, 1968, however, Judge Thomas O’Sullivan denied the application for a temporary injunction and the Bridgeport Telegram announced, “Court Refuses to Trim School’s Shaggy Boy Ban.” The students lost the battle but the won the war, as, in the decades the followed, long hair was never an issue.
Death Near Yazoo City
At midnight on August 17, 1968, Morganstern was driving to Jackson after working on civil rights assignments in Sunflower County. It was 12:30 a.m. He was five miles South of Yazoo City and drove up 1-Mile Hill, a stretch of asphalt nicknamed “Death Hill.”
Suddenly, a Plymouth Fury veered across the solid yellow center line and drove head-on into Paul. An hour later, R. and A. Wrecker arrived, but Paul’s car was so twisted that it had to be pried apart before Paul’s body could be freed and taken to King’s Daughter Medical Center. It was there that Paul was declared dead by a coroner and his body was sent to Gregory Funeral Home. The next day, Paul’s father authorized the cremation of his son and the shipping of his ashes to Norwalk, Connecticut.
Recalling the murders of civil rights activists like Evers, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, the Lawyers’ Committee assumed he was targeted. When I started writing this story, I, too, suspected something like a KKK plot. But there is no evidence that he died in anything but a senseless wreck caused by a drunk. Roy Self, the Lawyers’ Committee investigator, visited the scene of the accident and concluded simply that the driver who hit Paul, “drove illegally on the west side of the center line… endangering lives.” I made dozens of calls to newspapers and police offices but there is no evidence of a premeditated murder.
Back in Norwalk during the days that followed the accident, Paul, Sr. was torn by his desire to find out what happened and a commitment he had made to a local family he was housing after their house burned down. He realized that he trusted Roy Self, the Jackson investigator, and sought his suggestions. Paul Sr. and Paul’s mother, Mildred, received a gracious note that helped them decide to cremate Paul’s in Mississippi and not to investigate further.
As if addressing the Morgansterns, Self wrote, “It was a wise move to authorize Mr. Parks (of Gregory Funeral Home) to proceed with embalmment. He is a good guy and no funeral man could try harder to give every possible service that he did. He is one of the few funeral directors in Mississippi who serves people of all races. Let me assure the family that Paul’s remains have received as tender care as he could receive anywhere. To keep him alive after such a terrible wreck was beyond the power of human hands.”
Paul’s parents could have filed a wrongful death suit, but, in retrospect, they were overwhelmed by the horror of their child’s death. In the forty-nine years since his death, little was said about Paul in the Morganstern family, but things changed last year when his sister, Barbara, found a eulogy and photos in an Oregon attic and when I discovered Paul’s papers at Princeton.
Had Paul’s parents and siblings visited Mississippi, they would have met a grieving community. Paul only spent two months in Jackson, but, as former Chief Counsel Larry Aschenbrenner told me recently, he made a huge impact: “He taught my own kids and the black kids in the community how to swim. They loved him.” Jim Tripp, Paul’s roommate in Jackson, wrote in a eulogy that he wanted to “curse the arbitrariness of life and death” because “in one short moment, what had been a warm, vibrant, just and complex personality became nothing but a memory.”
Paul’s sister remembered that, “I was just 16 years old at the time of his passing and I have never quite resolved my sense of loss.” In the Village Creek Irregular Bulletin, attorney Frank Donner wrote that “Paul from an early age was a socially aware youngster. This conviction about social oppression and social injustice led him to choose law as a career…” Paul’s cousin, Warren Mersereau, knew Paul as a “hero” who, “swam at BU, was tall and self-confident and was so cool that he got away with wearing white loafers. He cared about people, even those he hardly knew.” Mersereau recounted how, in college: “I got a call from Paul. I’m not sure he even knew I was struggling, so I was amazed he took the time to contact me. Without him, I would not have made it through freshman year.”
“All that we, the living, can do is to record for others and posterity what… he stood for…” — Jim Tripp, 1968
In 2017, with Google searches, I figured out that Paul’s LSCRRC records are housed at the Seeley Mudd Library of Princeton University. I called Warren who told me that, coincidentally, he was in Princeton and could visit the archives. At Seeley, the librarians told Warren that he was not allowed to see the files because, “You’re not Paul Morganstern and the files are sealed.”
Warren: “True enough. I’m not Paul. That’s because Paul died 50 years ago. He’s not asking for his files anytime soon.”
“So why do you want to see them if you aren’t him?”
“Paul’s family and friends are planning a memorial service next year,” Warren responded.
The librarians examined the folder and saw that, indeed, there were letters discussing Paul’s death. The officials apologized, and the folder was delivered. Now, for the first time since 1968, we can read Paul’s perceptions of life in Mississippi.
In the file box is a LSCRRC form which asks, “What other incidents, legal or otherwise, connected with your job have made a particular impression on you? Be specific.”
Paul wrote: “No incidents – just facts…Police beat people over the head with wrenches; shooting in the back.” Then he added, “People (were) forced by virtue of health, age, job opportunities (or in absence thereof) to be on welfare – at the rate of $10-$30/month. And I thought I was living on subsistence!!”
Paul nudged the world to a better place with love as well as righteous anger. He fought for legal rights in the office, but he also found kinship with the young folks of Mississippi. They are among the beneficiaries of his ferocious energy and love.
Paul Morganstern, with Jewish chutzbah and African-American soul, has assured us that posterity is worth fighting for.