By Fritz Esker
On May 23, the ACLU of Louisiana honored longtime civil rights activist and community leader Sybil Haydel Morial with the organization’s Benjamin E. Smith Award.
The 86-year-old Morial received the award at a ceremony at Felicity Church. The ACLU spoke effusively of her contributions to civil rights and the Louisiana community as a whole.
“From challenging racial segregation during Jim Crow to empowering the next generation of civil rights leaders, Sybil Haydel Morial has helped shape the social and political landscape in Louisiana in permanent and profoundly positive ways,” said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms Hebert. “We were proud to honor her with the Benjamin E. Smith Award in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the advancement of civil liberties in Louisiana.”
The Benjamin E. Smith Award has been given annually since 1976 in honor of one of its founding members, the civil rights attorney Ben Smith. Smith was arrested in 1963 under the pretense that he was a communist when his actual crime was simply working to end segregation. The award is given to an individual who has made “an outstanding contribution to civil liberties in Louisiana.”
For Morial, the award had a special significance to her because she knew its namesake personally.
“I knew Ben Smith and I knew what he went through,” Morial said.
Morial expressed a deep respect for the ACLU’s mission during segregation and in present-day America.
“The ACLU has been defending and protecting the civil rights and liberties of all Americans since 1920,” Morial said. “Today, they are even more relevant… We have to defend our civil rights because they are being eroded.”
The daughter of a respected physician, Morial experienced the harsh realities of the Jim Crow South growing up. She and childhood friend Andrew Young were chased out of what is now the New Orleans Museum of Art by a policeman for the crime of stepping inside.
Morial would go on to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Boston University. She taught as an elementary school teacher throughout the 50s and 60s. She worked in impoverished areas like the Desire Housing Project. In 1962, Morial was the lone plaintiff in a successful challenge to a Louisiana statute prohibiting public school teachers from being involved in any organization promoting integration.
After a stellar career in the classroom, Morial moved on to become an administrator at Xavier University of Louisiana. During her tenure at Xavier, she produced an acclaimed documentary titled “A House Divided” that chronicled desegregation in the Crescent City. Xavier paid tribute to her in 2014 with an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.
Morial worked in many local boards and civic organizations. She became a founder of the interracial, non-partisan Louisiana League of Good Government, which promoted participation in Louisiana government by all of the state’s citizens.
During the 1984 World’s Fair, she served as president and chair of the I’ve Known Rivers Afro-American Pavilion. As the fair was being planned, Morial insisted it have an African-American presence in a city with as substantial an African-American population as New Orleans. She initiated funding and helped design the pavilion itself.
Morial chronicled the efforts of her and her contemporaries (including her friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) to challenge segregation in her 2015 memoir “Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment.”
This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly.