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Past is prologue to chancellor: Leo Morton contrasts upbringing with racial realities today

UMKC Chancellor Leo E. Morton looks the part of a suave, prosperous chief executive who has spent a lifetime rushing between board meetings, fundraisers and high-profile civic events.

He is, in fact, living testimony to what hard work and determination can accomplish. Morton is the epitome of success achieved despite a harsh upbringing at a time when it was impossible for most African Americans to imagine moving beyond the position of janitor.

Morton, the first African American to lead UMKC as chancellor, grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the Jim Crow era of the 1950s and 1960s. This was mostly a period in which it was illegal in that region for blacks to attend the same schools as whites, sit together on a bus or drink from the same water fountain.

Early this month during a Phi Kappa Phi honor society function in which dozens of UMKC students were initiated, Morton discussed how it was impossible in the 1950s and 1960s for a black student to aspire to more than a menial job.

Morton, who has a humble, personable, straight-speaking and unassuming presence, spoke to the U-News in his office, stressing that students of today can take advantage of a prevailing favorable environment to get the best out of their education.

Morton also shares a different reality. He acknowledges that a new Jim Crow has emerged, one very different but more subtle than that of the mid-20th century.

“During the time I was growing up in the South, things were a lot more overt,” Morton said. “In fact, there were these Jim Crow laws that made segregation legal. Most of those laws have now been done away with.”

Morton said the Jim Crow culture made life very hard for African Americans, and only the most determined made it through school.

He said, “But the laws were in place to make sure there was separation in housing, employment…there was separation in every walk of life, separate water fountains…It was pervasive.”

Morton lamented that as the old Jim Crow was abandoned, a new form of Jim Crow has taken shape in American society today, undermining important gains of the Civil Rights movement.

Morton was introduced to the concept by Michelle Alexander, a lawyer and civil rights activist who authored the book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” She delivered last year’s Martin Luther King, Jr., keynote address at UMKC.

“I was asked to introduce her, and I said I really want to hear about this ‘New Jim Crow’ because I knew about the old Jim Crow up-close and personal,” Morton said.

Alexander’s book talks about a new form of racial discrimination in America camouflaged in the war on drugs. Discreetly, it lays the ground for the long-term incarceration of African Americans and other people of color.

Morton said, “What she describes was the situation where today some of the laws we have, about possession of drugs for example, those laws are really dragging a number of African American and Hispanic males, in particular, to some unusually high levels of incarceration.”

He said the ‘New Jim Crow’ ideology has resulted in more young black and Hispanic males in prison than in college.

“The cost of maintaining them in prison far exceeds the cost to educate the same individuals,” Morton said. “The difficult part is that 80 percent of those who come out of prison end up going back.”

Morton said the so-called “war on drugs” has systematically destroyed the potential of many young blacks, just as the old Jim Crow laws did in the South.

He said, “The reason is, that once you are convicted of a felony, you aren’t allowed to live in public housing. You can’t get a job. You can’t vote. If you can’t make a living, you end up committing crimes.”

Morton, whose father owned a business in the all-black neighborhood in which they lived, brought up the infamous murder of a teenager from Chicago who was visiting Mississippi.

His crime was that he allegedly flirted with a 21-year-old white woman.

“Two weeks after my 10th birthday in 1955, a 14-year-old Emmett Till was mutilated and shot in Money, Mississippi,” Morton recalled. “He didn’t know that in the South you did not look at white women.”

Morton said many young men who are released from prison lack job skills.

“In essence, if you think about what the old Jim Crow laws did, and the situation now, that is how to define the new Jim Crow,” he said.

Morton pointed out that authorities applied harsh prison terms for African Americans under mandatory sentencing laws that gained traction during the 1980s.

The 1990s saw the rise of “three-strike laws” that required harsh sentences, up to life in prison, for any two-time felon who received a third conviction. President Bill Clinton, in 1994, hailed the passage of a federal three-strike law.

Since the introduction of mandatory sentencing, often involving drugs, incarceration has skyrocketed in the U.S.

Morton shares vision for students, UMKC

Despite today’s obstacles, Morton envisions a chance to succeed for those who are focused on their studies and know what they want to achieve.

He said that despite the harsh realities of his upbringing, he was focused and knew where he was destined to be in life. Morton holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tuskegee University, and a master’s of science degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He suggested a lack of vision and a sense of purpose are responsible for the mess in which some students find themselves.

“Students who don’t succeed have poor time management,” Morton said, using student athletes as examples of those who must learn to effectively manage their time. “Student athletes have good time management.

“Students who have not been busy don’t get it. When I was in high school, I engaged in athletics, entertainment, leadership positions and worked with my dad. You should be focused. Every class you take should advance you to achieve a certain goal. Know what you need to get through your course.

“Today on this campus, if a student enrolls and they don’t declare a major, which means they are undecided, the six-year graduation rate is 18 percent. If you look at a student who comes here to major in engineering, medicine or pharmacy, they tend to graduate on time. They are focused. Even student athletes graduate in four years at the rate of 86 percent with a 3.25 GPA.”

Where does he see UMKC going during the next decade?

He predicted, “In 10 years, UMKC will probably have an enrollment of 22,000 students, be well connected to the city, have robust research, supply more engineering talent to the Kansas City region, [promote] continuing education, and have a downtown campus for arts.”

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