Less than two months after seeing his brother’s 1939 lynching acknowledged by the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, local activist Charlie Morris has passed away. He died Sunday at the age of 97.
He was born in Arlington, Tenn., on Jan. 23, 1921. Young Charlie was raised by his grandparents, Frankie and Walter Branch, along with three other brothers: Jesse Lee, William Henry and Wilks. Their mother passed away when they were young boys.
Morris’ grandparents owned their land, unlike many African Americans in the rural south who were sharecroppers. Morris and his brothers were great-grandsons of the first free slave in Memphis and Shelby County, Joseph H. “Free Joe” Harris.
The seeds of political activism and the fight for racial equality were planted when young Morris’ older brother, Jesse Lee, was lynched for requesting a receipt from the general store clerk. Jesse Lee had purchased supplies for their cotton farm, but the store’s accounting system was private and based on the perpetual indebtedness of black patrons. Receipts were never supplied.
When Jesse Lee insisted on a receipt, he was given one. However, the storeowner and other white men wanted to make an example of him. “Jesse Lee was hunted like an animal,” Morris later recalled.
“They drug him in front of S.Y. Wilson Store where he was shot and castrated.” The body was then dragged behind a truck to the Loosahatchie River. The lynching mobilized blacks in neighboring counties to join the push for justice in his murder. Two white men were charged with first-degree murder, but were acquitted by an all-white jury.
Morris later moved to Memphis, where he continued to be haunted by the brutal murder of his brother.
For more than 70 years, Morris and wife, Alma, mobilized the Klondyke community and North Memphis to political action, ran grassroots campaigns for Democratic candidates, and moved against slumlord property owners.
The couple founded the Kennedy Democratic Organization (KDO) in 1967, which grew to nearly 150 members. Monthly meetings were held for years in their Morris Barber Shop at Evergreen Street and Chelsea Avenue. The KDO was an instrumental element in 1991 as Dr. Willie W. Herenton became the first African American elected mayor of Memphis.
Morris retired as staff manager of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company and was a prominent member of the West Tennessee Legal Services for over 40 years, according to his cousin, Daria “Dee-Dee” Hester.
He and Alma marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stood against racial discrimination in Memphis, and devoted their lives to political and community activism. In latter years, Morris continued to tell the story of Jesse Lee because he didn’t want his brother to be forgotten.
On April 28, a public prayer service and candlelight vigil was held at the original site of Jesse Lee’s murder. The multi-racial event was organized by the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis and Arlington High School alumni. Morris expressed “some measure of peace” after the service.
Morris was chairman of the deacon board at Corinthian Baptist Church and “still attending every Sunday and in good health,” according to Hester. “On Monday, June 4, he got sick. Over the next few days, he fell at his home and suffered a mild stroke. On Sunday, he passed away.”
Morris leaves two sons: Charlie Jr. and Ronald Morris Sr. (Yvonne); his wife Alma preceded him in death, as well as a third son, Anthony.
M.J. Edwards Funeral Home on Airways Boulevard has charge of final arrangements.