Morrison remembered as a man who lived large and lived his faith

cclick@thestate.comOctober 31, 2013 

Hundreds of mourners gathered Thursday to pay final respects to Stephen G. “Steve” Morrison, a prominent attorney and generous figure who fought passionately to improve education opportunities for the state’s poor, predominantly minority children.

They came from all walks of life – politicians, lawyers, civil rights advocates, artists, fellow Christians – filling the pews of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church and spilling over into its parish hall in a display of humanity that surely would have delighted the gregarious, broad-minded Morrison.

“He colored way outside the lines, way outside the lines,” said the Rev. Sally Johnston, St. Martin’s rector. “Steve showed us what faith looks like when it is lived out in something bigger than ourselves.”

Morrison, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, specialized in technology law, business liability, product liability and securities, litigating some 260 jury trial cases and arguing 60 appeals in the course of his 40-year legal career. Along the way, he earned dozens of national legal awards and commendations. As an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina’s law school, he was mentor to hundreds of fledgling lawyers.

But his colleagues and friends suggested Thursday that Morrison’s broader agenda was transformation of South Carolina into a more humane and just society.

“He was driven by a higher calling,” said James K. “Jim” Lehman, managing partner at Nelson Mullins, who delivered words of remembrance during the traditional Episcopal funeral rite. He described Morrison as a “giant sequoia” who was driven to pursue justice “for those who have no voice.”

“Steve often commented about a lawyer’s obligation in the profession in that regard,” Lehman said, “and if I heard him say this once I heard him say this at least a dozen times: “Those who serve the law must also serve the poor.”

Morrison, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Columbia in 2009, died early Sunday while on a trip to New York. He was 64.

For many, Morrison’s legacy will be forever intertwined with a landmark South Carolina education equity case that began in 1993 when 40 poor, rural school districts turned to the courts to determine whether the state’s funding formula essentially consigned their students to inadequate schools and poor education. The rural, predominantly African-American districts nestled along Interstate 95 became known as the “corridor of shame.”

In 2005, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper ruled that the state met its constitutional obligation to deliver a “minimally adequate education,” except in the area of early childhood education, where he ruled for the plaintiffs. The districts appealed, and the state cross-appealed. The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in 2008 and then returned to the case last year.

In September 2012, Morrison and his Nelson Mullins colleague Carl B. Epps III, still representing the districts for free, were back before the state Supreme Court to argue that it is up to the high court to remedy what the legislature will not.

“The state has systematically segregated our poorest African-American children into rural ghettos,” Morrison said. “And having then herded them into those ghettos, the state has systematically refused to provide funding that would produce a constitutionally adequate education in those districts.” He told the justices a decision that favors the districts “could trigger a new dawn, a new renaissance in South Carolina.”

After learning of Morrison’s death on Sunday, NAACP state president Lonnie Randolph said “the best eulogy we could give him is for this issue of education justice that he gave his life for be settled,” and in a manner that would give all students an equal shot at a good education.

Randolph was among about 600 mourners at the morning service that included S.C. chief Justice Jean Toal; U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel: retired chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals and College of Charleston president Alex Sanders; Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin; former Gov. Dick Riley; former state superintendent of education and current chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Inez Tenenbaum; former Winthrop College president and Clinton administration official Phil Lader; .Columbia Urban League president J.T. McLawhorn Jr., Denmark College president Cleveland Sellers; Columbia City Ballet director William Starrett; retired USC president John Palms; and former S.C. Commission on Higher Education executive director Fred Sheheen, among others.

Morrison had his hand in a breathtaking array of community endeavors, from the Columbia Urban League to the United Way; boards of historically black institutions Allen University and Benedict College; arts and civic organizations; and his church. His pastor said his faith informed the way he lived his life.

“All the political things that he did in the world stemmed from his faith, his understanding to take the Gospel literally and to go out and live it,” Johnston said Wednesday as she ruminated on her homily. “I see him as having lived his faith large and with integrity. What I would have us all remember is that we can all do that.”

Stephen George Morrison was born Aug. 10, 1949, in Pasadena, Calif., to I. George and Virginia Z. Morrison. He grew up in Midland, Mich., and was graduated from the University of Michigan in 1971. He went on to earn a law degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1975, and in 1997 completed the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He joined Nelson Mullins in 1975 and was the 10th lawyer on the letterhead of the fledgling firm that now has 500 lawyers.

He is survived by his wife, Gail M. Morrison, and son, Gregory Morrison.

As the service concluded, voices gathered in the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the sacred hymn poem known as the “black national anthem” that was written by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson.

Johnston said Morrison would have wanted those gathered to sing loudly and take to heart its message.

“Who can step into his shoes?” former Columbia City Council member Belinda Gergel said after the service. “I can’t think of anyone.”

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