Joshua Morse III; defied tradition to admit first black law students in Miss.


NEW YORK — Joshua Morse III, who as dean of the University of Mississippi School of Law in the 1960s defied segregationist tradition by admitting the school’s first black students, a move that led to the desegregation of Mississippi’s legal profession and judiciary, died Sept. 14 at his home in Tallahassee. He was 89.

His family announced his death.

In a time of civil rights marches and often violent racial strife in the Deep South, Mr. Morse challenged prejudice and parochialism by fostering a markedly progressive period at the school. He used Ford Foundation money to recruit minority students, promoted a student legal assistance program for the poor, exposed students to liberal ideas, and hired Ivy League professors from the North.

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But his efforts lasted only six years. Pitted against the state’s legal establishment, he stepped down in 1969, and the school reverted to more conservative leadership.

Mr. Morse admitted Ole Miss’s first black law students in 1963, a year after James Meredith became the first black person to enroll at the university, a watershed event in the civil rights struggle. By 1967, black enrollment at the law school had expanded to about 20 in a student body of 360.

Black graduates were soon admitted to the state bar, joining a legal fraternity defined by alumni of Ole Miss, the state’s only law school, which Time magazine called the ‘‘prep school for political power in Mississippi.’’

Reuben Anderson, the first black graduate of the school, in 1968, went on to become the first black president of the Mississippi bar. The school’s first black woman to graduate, Constance Slaughter-Harvey, in 1970, became the first black woman to be named a judge in Mississippi.

Joshua Marion Morse III was born in Poplarville, Miss., a sawmill town. He was a graduate of Ole Miss and its law school and served in the Army during World War II.

After law school he joined his father’s law practice in Poplarville.

Mr. Morse joined the Ole Miss faculty as an associate professor in 1962 and was named dean in 1963. Rather than start immediately, however, he attended Yale on a one-year graduate fellowship. But before he left, he helped orchestrate admission offers to several black students.

When he returned, he brought two Yale graduates with him to teach. The next year he hired another and received a $437,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to recruit minorities. In 1965, he invited eight Yale professors to teach two-week courses on individual rights. The next semester, he brought a group of Harvard professors to lecture on federalism. Professors from Columbia University and New York University came later.

He ended up hiring new graduates of Yale Law School to fill eight of 21 positions. Besides teaching, they prepared federal lawsuits on voting rights and civil liberties and recruited students for a legal assistance program for the poor.

In 1966, when state education officials sought to rescind an invitation to the liberal Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy to speak at the law school, Mr. Morse threatened to resign. Senator Kennedy spoke to an appreciative audience.

Mr. Morse leaves his wife of 66 years, the former Eva Triplett; his son, Joshua; his daughters, Anne Morse Burris and Mary Jeanne Morse Lykes; and six grandchildren.