Bolton: Columbia attorney Steve Morrison used his gifts effectively

Associate EditorOctober 29, 2013 

— NONE OF us can claim to be greater than or more important than another — whether in life or in death — but some of us stand out because we prove to be more effective in how we manage the time, talent and compassion God gives us. Steve Morrison is one of those people.

The Columbia attorney, who died suddenly over the weekend, was an effective communicator who possessed one of the brightest minds and biggest, most compassionate hearts this community and state have ever known.

I always thought his insight, compassion and vision would have made him the perfect governor for South Carolina. When I learned he was considering running for mayor of Columbia in 2010, I wrote a column encouraging him to join the race, which he did, although unsuccessfully. I knew that, win or lose, he would raise the level of debate and force new ideas to the table.

“If I run,” he said, “I will be running … to stand for visionary leadership over divisiveness, big-picture interests over pedestrian politics, solid management over risky alternatives and unity over racial discord.”

That was the essence of Steve Morrison. He had a genuine and natural inclination to draw people together to do what was in the best interest of all. He could frame complex and difficult issues in a manner that helped us all not only gain understanding but see and feel what he saw and felt.

He spoke with power and authority, often articulating the circumstances of those left behind in a manner that made the broader community understand why it was important to give them a lift.

On Monday, I looked back over comments he had made at Columbia Urban League functions over the years that illustrate that:

In 2001, he delivered a candid, forceful speech that challenged Columbians and South Carolinians to take brave steps to address glaring inequities in our society, many of which adversely affect African-Americans.

“To build a great community, we must be fiercely committed to equality and justice,” he said. “But, that’s not all. Too often when the board of directors of a major corporation gets together, they can look around the room and find only white males over the age of 55. We need greater African-American representation on corporate boards.”

In January 2004, at the Urban League breakfast in honor of Martin Luther King, Mr. Morrison, whose firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough is representing the poor school districts that are suing the state for equitable funding, gave a compelling presentation outlining how badly South Carolina had failed its students. Calling the poor state of education “South Carolina’s unrealized dream,” he chronicled how this state had failed to meet its constitutional and moral mandate to educate all its children, beginning in 1903.

“This is not about statistics. It’s about real people and about real kids,” Mr. Morrison said. “The state of South Carolina has been systematically and consistently holding the children in the poorest districts down.”

“Ultimately, we have to have the political will to make” changes, he said. “We need to stand up and act now.”

In 2006, again at the Columbia Urban League breakfast, he provided an update of the school funding trial following Circuit Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr.’s ruling that children in poor districts, mostly African-American, weren’t being prepared for a minimally adequate education. Mr. Morrison said that made the Legislature constitutionally responsible for making sure children through the third grade get a quality education.

“For what the court did, we say, ‘Amen,’ ” Mr. Morrison said. But, he said, many families and children were left out. As important as it is for the Legislature to provide comprehensive intervention that helps put a 3-year-old on a track to receive a quality education, that would do nothing for a 9-year-old from the same family, who is on the brink of failing as a result of his early instruction in a school system that has the highest teacher turnover, the oldest facilities, oldest books and most teachers teaching out of their subject areas.

“Those children are entitled to ask, ‘What about us?’ ”

Time after time, Mr. Morrison was willing to ask people in power that question on behalf of so many struggling people — whether school children or homeless people on the streets of Columbia. He did it from the heart with a sincere intent of provoking meaningful change that would make our state and community better.

We should all be so unselfishly committed. And effective.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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