President of the Mississippi Center for Justice reflects on Turkey Creek

Reilly Morse, president of the Mississippi Center for Jusice

“In this particular situation the community organizing efforts and the legal strategy worked and meshed almost as perfectly as anything I’ve ever done. And that’s in part because there’s a moral theme and a values theme in the legal work that is just made-to-order for community organizing.”


In the spring of 2014, Leah Mahan interviewed Reilly Morse about his role in the legal strategy behind events portrayed in her documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek. Morse is a third-generation Gulf Coast lawyer and was providing legal help to the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club when he became involved in work to protect Turkey Creek and the communities living in the watershed. To read articles by Reilly Morse and related materials, go to the Teaching Resources page.

Mahan: I think people watching the film are struck by Mayor Combs and (city councilmember) Kim Savant saying they were unaware of Turkey Creek as a community. And I wonder, having grown up there, what your sense of it was as a place. Was it that invisible? It was removed – it was outside the city – so it’s logical people might not know of its existence. But maybe just give a sense of whether you were aware of it or when you did become aware of it.

Morse: I became aware of Turkey Creek the way I became aware of all this bayou related stuff that was around me, because I also grew up in a back water neighborhood that just happened to be all white and middle class and relatively prosperous – certainly compared to the folks that I know over in Turkey Creek. And to get to Turkey Creek I would cross over what was, at that time, a decrepit kind of a bridge. I was aware once I made that turn – because it was a pretty sharp turn – that I was in a very different neighborhood, a very different way of living and things were very obviously unlike where I grew up – which was sort of post-WWII ranch style houses. These were much more like shotgun houses, houses with porches, overgrown trees. So it looked older. And I wasn’t aware of it as Turkey Creek the community as such. I was aware of it as a black neighborhood on the other side of the creek. So I didn’t know the history myself until many years later. I knew the geography, I knew the area, I knew people who lived there, but I didn’t know it in the sense that I became familiar with it later when I was an attorney representing residents of Turkey Creek.

“Look, there’s this outrageous problem that dwarfs anything that’s going on … and you need to deal with it.”

Mahan: How did you first come to represent Turkey Creek?

Morse: I first became an attorney for residents in Turkey Creek about four or five years after I opened a solo practice, so around 1999-2000. And what prompted it was I had previously been doing public interest environmental representation at reduced fees – which is what you do for community organizations. Most of those had been front water wetlands fights for comparatively well-to-do residential neighborhoods who were trying to resist the encroachment of casinos into their backyards. And I was good at it. But what happened was that the head of the state chapter of the Sierra Club said, “Look, there’s this outrageous problem that dwarfs anything that’s going on with these casinos in terms of wetlands loss and you need to deal with it. Here’s the co-chair (who was Rose Johnson), here’s the problem, and I need you to get after it. Will you do it?” And I said yes.

At this point I had been a part-time city prosecutor and city judge for the City of Gulfport for about five or six years and I had to end that working relationship because it was very possible that I was going to have to bring legal challenges that involved the city itself. And so I resigned. And shortly after that I took on that work. So that’s how I got to know Rose. That’s how I later got to know Derrick. That’s how I got to know a number of the people that live in Turkey Creek that are part of this story.

“And this was the last straw. ‘No, not this one,’ we said.”

Mahan: Giving up your position sounds like a big decision. Can you say what about that situation made you feel it was that urgent?

Morse: Well, I think what made me choose to leave being a city judge and take on this work is not merely the importance of this case. Although it was indeed a big factor. But there were also very clear problems surfacing in city court from my perspective. There was an enormous disparity in law enforcement and punishment of black residents that troubled me. And there wasn’t any indication that that was going to change. That begins with law enforcement and I didn’t want to be part of that.

Then separately, because I had spent so much time on wetlands protection on front beach areas, and had committed a lot of my effort and a lot of my values to that, when somebody came to me and said, “This is 5, 10 or 15 times bigger. You’ve got to do it. There’s nobody else here to do it.” I would say yes on that standing alone.

And then when you add on top of that that this is part of a very powerful environmental justice story, and environmental racism story. It was very clear cut. But there wasn’t a single moment or a single case. It was the combination of those things happening about the same time.

“(T)his is part of a very powerful environmental justice story …”

Mahan: Can you describe the Butch Ward project that was proposed in the Turkey Creek watershed and what the issues were?

Morse: Sure, the Butch Ward project is something which concerned about a 1,100-acre tract that is at the south west portion of an intersection between Highway 49 and Interstate 10. It is a tract which has a railroad cutting through it in the upper third. And the land basically descends downward toward the banks of the Turkey Creek. And probably the lower two thirds of that are medium to high quality wetlands. It’s good stuff.

Ward bought that property, tried to – without permits – eliminate or reduce the wetlands by doing what’s called Tulloch dredging. And that’s a term that basically means going in and putting in these channels that will cause the soil to dry up and the wetlands characteristics to disappear. He got caught. He had to pay a fine. He had to put into place a development plan – if he were going to go forward on this – that more fully respected the environmental protection characteristics.

Just on a pure environmental standpoint what he was proposing to do was a just a fundamental — he was trying to develop a piece of property that is not suited for large-scale retail commercial development. And this watershed already had had many, many similar types of efforts succeed. And this was the last straw. “No, not this one,” we said.

What makes it an environmental justice issue is that so many other of those sorts of developments had happened in the Turkey Creek watershed that it had had more than 10% of its ground covered with impervious surface. And what that means is more than 10% of that general area had become parking lot. And once you reach that level, and all of those things wash off in rains into the creek, it impairs the quality of the water to a certain point that is a tipping point, where it becomes really, really hard to turn it back around. So that’s the science part of it.

What makes it an environmental justice issue is that for decades prior to that point the same argument could have been made of many, many of the other developments that they were going to adversely effect the quality of a water body that had historically been the water resource and refuge for emancipated slaves and their descendants for generations. But there wasn’t even any kind of language to talk about that kind of thing going back to the 1870s or 90s. That sort of concept of the fusion of environmental law and civil rights really emerged in the 1970s as a separate concept. And from that point forward it built. So this was the latest example of that. It was enormous. Much larger than any of the others. And it was happening at a point in time when the water quality of that region, as well as the flooding along the banks, were in crisis. Very high risk problems.

“It was a moment of just fundamentally disrespecting a community that had stood up and survived over generations against the harshest odds. You don’t do that. Nobody does that!”

Mahan: In the film there’s protest. People are upset, and we see more of the community organizing that goes on around Butch Ward and the mayor’s comments and all. But can you talk about the legal strategy and how those two things worked together?

Morse: In this particular situation the community organizing efforts and the legal strategy worked and meshed almost as perfectly as anything I’ve ever done. And that’s in part because there’s a moral theme and a values theme in the legal work that is just made-to-order for community organizing. When you’re talking about environmental justice for a community founded by emancipated slaves you are talking about something that is profound and that has enormous emotional power. When that water body is used for recreation and baptisms in a segregated society then the devotion to that water body and the family memories that build up on that are, again, made-to-order for community organizing. People build around it.

And so the way that the two worked together was that all of this information existed before lawyers or investigators came along. It was in the community and people talked about it. It was in their memoirs, books and photos. What the legal strategy did was in a way sort of collect and put forward a narrative in mainstream language about this, situated it correctly, historically in the history of the surrounding area and legitimize it in the white world in a way. Which it was never in need of that and was in reality of course legitimate from its inception. But from the standpoint of making people recognize it. People who thought the community didn’t exist. Or who thought it’s not even a creek, it’s a drainage ditch. Or people who thought that’s old history. “Who cares about civil rights?” For those kinds of voices. For those kinds of ears you need to gather it, footnote it, historicize it.

And that’s what happened is we had about a week where I had a paralegal go around and interview a lot of people in Turkey Creek and North Gulfport. And put that history together in the context of a section of a brief I was going to be writing about socioeconomics and about history. And that provided the factual backdrop for arguments to make about environmental justice and environmental racism.

So all of that is sort of the lawyer’s stuff. But as people in these two communities increasingly took ownership in the public domain – They already owned it from before, but in terms of the public narrative – once the objections and protests to this became more and more public and the political people (the mayor and the other folks) began to push back on it, they were stronger, they were more empowered. When a couple of those political guys just went into the Old South language about “dumb bastards,” and, “They don’t know anything anyway.” I mean … it went radioactive.

It was a moment of just fundamentally disrespecting a community that had stood up and survived over generations against the harshest odds. You don’t do that. Nobody does that! So that’s how the two fitted together. And it isn’t like one preceded the other. Except that the community preceded all of this  – the residents and the history, the lived values preceded all of that. But then once you start to put in motion the effort to mobilize this in a setting of an environmental challenge then these things start to operate in sync a little more and they feed off each other. And once folks who are maybe more inclined to step back from a public debate, because of reasons that are probably pretty good reasons down South, once they see others stepping forward its more likely that other information comes forward. So it’s a self-reinforcing moment.

“Nothing is going to stop us coming. So you better just get out of the way.”

Mahan: You were talking about how the community had their own legitimacy and suddenly they had to prove themselves in a way. And I think the cemetery is a moment that was a wake up call. They had survived by being isolated, being self-sufficient. And then suddenly it’s clear they’re going to have to deal with the outside world in a whole different way. I don’t know if you want to say something about the cemetery, if you think about it that way, too, or maybe about how survival techniques that had worked up to that point weren’t going to work any more. Now they were part of this larger city and something had to shift dramatically about the way they dealt with the outside world.

Morse: The part of the Turkey Creek story that relates to the cemetery is far and away the most profound example of disrespecting a community, treating a community as invisible, doing something to a black community that would never be done to a white community anywhere. And the idea that a developer might bring a back hoe into an area and see crosses or other very unmistakable indications of sacred ground, a burial ground, and just say, “Clear it out,” is callous in the extreme. You can’t find words strong enough to express that. And it’s also I think the sort of transgression that is going to tell anybody that’s residing still in a neighborhood where that cemetery is, whose forefathers or foremothers who are buried there, “Nothing is going to stop us coming. So you better just get out of the way.”

I mean, the other thing about it is when the rule of law is supposed to be the thing which sets up equal justice for everybody, regardless of whether or not they can afford lawyers, and you have all of these systems, these zoning rules and land development rules and permits and all this other stuff that end up ham-stringing communities of color in so many other ways, when they get just blatantly disregarded in a setting like this, it’s corrosive. It’s corrosive to democracy. It’s corrosive to the rule of law. It just breaks the social contract. So when that happens its truly, “You’re on your own.” That’s when people realize, “We do not have representation,” which is what Rip Daniels mentioned. He said, at this point, this community has taxation without representation. That’s what that is. That’s really fundamentally what that episode is about. The rest of these things, they are important and they are valuable, but that is just desecration.

“Someone has to write that history and spell it out … in order to put it on a footing that can trigger a whole bunch of protections …”

Mahan: You were talking about filing all this information, historicizing it, in the Butch Ward proceedings. Can you explain what the proceedings were. How was that information used?

Morse: The reason that this narrative of Turkey Creek history was put together was because it was going to be a key segment of comments submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in opposition to Butch Ward’s application to fill hundreds of acres of wetlands for commercial development. When one opposes applications like that and wants the Corps to refuse permission, or deny the permit, one has to challenge all of the factual assumptions that are in the application and one has to sometimes make the affirmative case of something that isn’t even acknowledged in the analysis submitted by the applicant.

So in this case, Ward is describing this area the same way that we heard the other political people describe the area. It’s not even an area. It’s a shortcut between one place and another place. It isn’t even an area with identity. And that creek isn’t even a creek. It’s a drainage ditch. So the point of putting this narrative together is to historicize it in furtherance of efforts to trigger historical preservation, values and, in this particular case, civil rights related historical values. Which in turn lead to the environmental justice strengths of this case.

The way all that got done was that– I had a solo practice, I had no support. But through the kindness of a Stanford law student, Trisha Miller (who flew herself to Mississippi for a week and stayed with us) … I met with her on a Monday, connected her with a few people – Rose Johnson, Pastor Calvin Jackson and a few others – and said, “You know what we’re looking for, go get it.” So I didn’t see her for a week and at the end of the week she came back in and said, “Here,” and handed me this beautifully curated wonderfully written history.

It’s an example of what needs to happen in every civil rights related setting in the South with communities of color. Someone has to — preferably someone from within the community, but if they’re not available … Someone has to write that history and spell it out. And curate it in order to put it on a footing that can trigger a whole bunch of protections that are available to other communities that have done this. You have to act in furtherance – in protection of – your own community in the historical sphere. So once we had that in place, we put it in.

We added to that, thanks to those awful remarks of the mayor which I took with Trisha to the Sierra Club, and said, “Can you believe this? The Sierra Club needs to back this environmental justice fight this is as egregious as it gets.” And they gave us money to hire I think it was EarthWorks, a wetlands protections group. They in turn did on the science, wetlands side what Trisha had done on the civil rights and historical side. Just perfectly curated, spelled it out, documented it. So those two pieces put together were a key part of what we submitted to the Corps of Engineers. And that caused Ward to withdraw the permit because he realized he was up against an insurmountable challenge.

“What happened in the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century is that coastal settlement grew north and collided with and then enveloped the black communities on the banks of the Turkey Creek.”

Mahan: Turkey Creek is not unique on the Gulf Coast, in that the black community settled there in the lowlands. Can you talk about settlement patterns on the Gulf Coast and how it’s part of a bigger picture?

Morse: Sure, the Gulf Coast area where Derrick and I and others grew up was defined by a couple of racial axes. One axis was laid down by the railroad tracks, which linked New Orleans and Mobile as part of the commerce trade. Then the other axis is sort of the front water/back water axis. And by that I mean the front water open to the Mississippi sound and the Gulf of Mexico was settled by whites and was where the bulk of the commerce took place. And then back water meaning the bayous and rivers and creeks that sort of meander and spread like spider webs through the marshes back there, where lower value, more flood-prone and harder to farm locations existed. And they tended to be where people of color settled, especially after the Civil War when there was a use of the Swamp Lands Act – a way to purchase land very cheaply.

So emancipated slaves who saved up a bunch of money were able to buy tracts of land and have their own autonomy. And so you have a combination of the railroad tracks sending up a beach front and a back-of-town setting within, say, half a mile of the coastline. And then further inland, several miles inland, as this web of waterways and creeks penetrates into the back territory there, you have pockets of residential settlement that were predominantly African American. What happened in the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century is that coastal settlement grew north and collided with and then enveloped the black communities on the banks of the Turkey Creek. And that sort of dynamic in social geography happens all over the country, but it was particularly noticeable in the Deep South under Jim Crow because it’s just more in high relief that way.

“(T)his is a multi-decade long challenge that these communities will face.”

Mahan: Can you give an update on what’s happening now with Butch Ward’s land. Where do things stand now?

Morse: Well, since the time that Butch Ward withdrew his permit, which was the end of 2003, right around in there, he’s persisted in wanting to find a way to redevelop it. He didn’t completely walk away from it. He still owns it. Immediately after Katrina he tried to get federal officials to waive environmental protections to allow some part of his land to be leased as a staging area for recovery projects to generate some revenue, and they refused.

But then later, when the Mississippi Department of Transportation proposed to put in a port connector road that would fill about 150 acres of wetlands through the Turkey Creek watershed – and to offset that by 10 to 1 wetlands mitigation protection and to use the entire Ward property to do that offset – he fought that.  Eventually he succeeded. A court held that the federal officials had not put into the record the evidence that Ward’s property was wetlands. I’ll just say personally for me that’s baffling because I put that kind of evidence into the Corps’ hands years before. And it was very, very precise. And so why they didn’t simply use that is beyond me. But nobody asked me to be in that lawsuit.

What has happened since that time is that he got the court to set aside the port connector road permit and almost simultaneously with that he filed his own application to develop the property. And this time (and this is ten years later), he characterizes it instead of being this retail location as being “Portopolis.” This is a neologism, a new word that means the Port of Gulfport and Polis (city). So this is his notion. This is not a word I made up. This is in his application. And it’s a collection of transportation infrastructure – warehouses, multimodal facilities, rail, all kinds of stuff with a little retail and a hotel at the end. Alright, so it’s essentially about, a little less than half of the total property he’s proposing be turned into this Portopolis.

When I first learned about this we filed objections and we said, “Look, the port hasn’t heard of you. There’s not public need. What you’re proposing isn’t water dependent.” Which in the setting of environmental, Clean Water Act law about filling wetlands permits that’s very important. Because if it is water dependent then the rules are more favorable for the applicant. This wasn’t water dependent. And it’s just a project without a developer, without a need. It’s just somebody’s imagination trying to jack up the price of the property and prevent it from being used for other purposes. At least that was our immediate perception, and that’s what we said.

So right now, it along with the port connector road, is sort of sitting, gathering dust at the Corps of Engineers while the Corp evaluates the expansion of the state port of Gulfport, which is a very large, sprawling thing which itself is in fact that trigger for the port connector road. And at least from Ward’s standpoint is the reason Portopolis being proposed. So once the port EIS (Environmental Impact Survey) is released for comment and goes through its processes, then these other things may follow. So this is a multi-decade long challenge that these communities will face. 

“(T)here was a very rich and brilliant collection of people to work with. Then on top of that were over 2,000 law students who would come and would take up projects.”

Mahan: Can you say something about the legal team, including the Lawyers Committee, that was mobilized around this. Particularly after Katrina, there were many lawyers who helped. Can you say something about that growing legal community that was providing all kinds of help and the importance of that?

Morse: It’s worth taking a moment to contrast what was going on before Hurricane Katrina struck and what happened afterward when talking about Turkey Creek. Because before that time there was basically one public interest environmental lawyer on the Gulf Coast doing this work and that was me. Right before the hurricane another one came in. But I was basically it. After Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast region was flooded with enormous volunteer support, which was so warmly welcomed by all. Included was legal support from national law firms and national public interest firms.

Now I found myself recruited into a Mississippi-based public interest law firm, which I now lead, the Mississippi Center for Justice. And at the time I was recruited in, (MCJ) had just signed an agreement to be the Deep South affiliate for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which was at that time 40 years old and had been created in response to a call from President Kennedy in the early 1960s to urge the National Bar to stand up for civil rights.

So I found myself over the nine years since closely working with attorneys at the Lawyers Committee. Really great lawyers from Trisha Miller to Jon Hooks to Diane Glauber and David Zisser to Joe Rich to any number of others. All led by Barbara Arnwine. But on top of that were networks that went in all different directions. Some of them were spawned by our firm or the Lawyers’ Committee’s relationships with pro bono organizations – lawyers all across the nation that donate time to public interest causes. And some of it came out of my old environmental side relationships. Like the National Resources Defense Council and Adriano Martinez and other people that we met out on the west coast who know this work extremely well. There was also an extraordinary San Francisco lawyer who went on partial sabbatical from his firm and worked for us for a while, George Riley. He is now on our board (at the Mississippi Center for Justice).

So there was a very rich and brilliant collection of people to work with. Then on top of that were over 2,000 law students who would come and would take up projects. And of course these are coming from national firms, national schools all over the country – the west coast, the east coast and in between. We would give them pieces of work and they would advance research problems that we had, they would do community survey work, they would further the inquiries, the needs that we had over the course of a month or two months during the summer. And so we had a really, really strong team across the board and they have been great ever since.

“Have we seen the moment where Mississippi will finally rise up out of these generations of backwardness and loss and inability to move forward, and step forward dramatically?”

Mahan: I read an article and you were talking about Katrina and the fact that both sides were trying to show the new face of Mississippi. And that Barbour’s approach was about that. Governor Barbour had this enormous capacity to tap into federal funds. Can you shed some light on Barbour’s approach?

Morse: Gov. Barbour was of course a former chair of the Republican National Committee and a former lobbyist and a former senior member of the Reagan White House. He knew Washington inside and out. And he had a very seasoned, very senior congressional delegation, particularly in the Senate, with Trent Lott and Thad Cochran to go to bat for Mississippi. And he used all of those resources to the limit, to get the most for Mississippi that could possibly be gotten in the face of this unbelievable, unimaginable disaster. And everybody in Mississippi applauded him for that. Now he was very sharp elbowed and he got it to the detriment of our colleagues in Louisiana, who had three times more damage but did not get three times more money the first time out. So there was tension between Louisiana and Mississippi public interest advocates, and between political people for that matter, over this for a long time.

But what Governor Barbour also did was to try to pull together a private collection of people, meaning he didn’t do this as a governmental exercise he did it as a public-private venture called the Governor’s Commission for Recovery, Renewal and Rebuilding. It was led by Jim Barksdale and swept together a whole lot of local political people and architects and planners and public service people into a room for the renewal forum that happened in September (2005).

So in terms of getting out of the blocks fast, he deserves credit for doing that. He also deserves credit for getting the maximum amount that Mississippi could possibly get if you look at it in isolation. Oftentimes we are fighting hard to get what we think is our share. In this case he got an outsized share. So there was a period early on when people looked at the results of that commission report, which was an extraordinarily progressive document, in many ways, and the fact that there was going to be a large amount of money coming to Mississippi and thought, “My God it’s the kingdom come here. Have we seen the moment where Mississippi will finally rise up out of these generations of backwardness and loss and inability to move forward, and step forward dramatically?”

And that was clearly what I think Governor Barbour was doing, was strongly accentuating the positive, saying, “We’re not in to victimhood.” That was his favorite line. “We’re hitching up our britches,” that was his other favorite line. Fine, but I went to a lot of those neighborhoods and folks were just as full of despair, justifiably, as they were over in Louisiana. There was a lot of marketing was what that was. That was his message, that was his theme. What we did not see in that kind of message though was an obligation to be equitable in the use of this assistance and to recognize that there are people who are not going to be able to earn or borrow or use assets that they already have to restore their lives, “to hitch their britches up” with. But he put the better off at the front of the line when it came to disaster assistance and we thought that was wrong and we waged a multi year fight over that.

Whereas he was planting a “Can do” flag, “Mississippi can take care of itself. We will demonstrate high quality, and smart use of these funds and there will not be any fraud or mismanagement,” from our side we were saying, “You have to be fair and equitable.” This is a once in Mississippi’s lifetime opportunity to invest in restoring something closer to balance in the lives of Mississippians in this region and to close some of the disparities that have persistently existed because of bad choices and discrimination that have existed in this state for so long. This is the chance to make over the moral vision of Mississippi, was our argument. And I don’t think we quite got there. Certainly not in the first year or two. I think we were lagging and we spent a lot of time since trying to make the case that we didn’t make progress.

“We thought (Gov. Barbour) played it too close to the vest. He excluded too many people from setting the priorities.”

Mahan: Can you explain how it was that Gov. Barbour was able to take housing recovery funds and use them to expand the Port of Gulfport?

Morse: In a situation where you have a comprehensive housing loss, something like over 200,000 houses either damaged or destroyed in one way or the other in a region where the population is maybe 600,000 in the widest range. You had a vast, vast loss in this state. The first thing you’re going to do if you’re going to figure out priorities is to understand a little more about the characteristics of those households. Well, instead of doing that, Gov. Barbour sort of launched into this homeowner assistance grant program that gave the most generous grants to people who already had some insurance and who had tidal surge. Then he used a legalistic argument about the federal government having mis-drawn the flood lines and boxed people out of being able to fully insure themselves as a rationale for his argument.

Whereas in Louisiana, for whatever faults it had, they said if you had hurricane damage, which is wind or water or both, you’re eligible. We’re not going to draw lines about the type of loss you had. There’s a contrast between the two. So as a result, in Mississippi, housing recovery lagged in the back-of-town areas. The areas where the railroad tracks held back the tidal surge, but not the hurricane force winds. That was the majority black communities.

So we went through two years without a baseline of understanding what was there — without a full, comprehensive plan. Just a series of cards turned over one after another. “Here’s part of what I’m going to do, but don’t sue me yet because I still haven’t turned over the rest of my cards. Wait a minute longer because I have one more plan for you. Well, hold up because I’ve still got two billion to go.” That kind of a process is not – it’s designed to prevent it from being judged holistically. And you need to have a clear plan for the whole thing that is public. Because it’s not Gov. Barbour’s money. It’s the public’s money. Everybody ought to have a say in how that’s spent.

We thought he played it too close to the vest. He excluded too many people from setting the priorities. And then when he made a really bad error in judgment – in shifting $600 million in housing away from the housing when the housing recovery wasn’t finished, towards an expansion of an $120 million dollar port he caught a lot of flack for that. And its still the one place where people were saying this clearly was his biggest mistake.

“(U)sing pretty much every tool in the tool box … we set up an uproar about that.”

Mahan: How were you and others involved in fighting the Governor’s re-allocation of housing recovery funds toward other uses and what was the outcome?

Morse: What happened is that community equity advocates – The Steps Coalition, a variety of other organizations – opposed that shifting of disaster aid from housing to a port expansion and working with the Lawyers Committee and pro bono firms and using pretty much every tool in the tool box – litigation, congressional testimony, media advocacy, protests (which included Derrick’s incredible rolling bulletin board of woe, the FEMA trailer) – we set up an uproar about that.

And ultimately what ended up happening was I worked out negotiations with representatives of Gov. Barbour’s team, and with Gov. Barbour himself, to restore what will now be close to $200 million to unfinished housing business. And that was announced in late 2010. That program is probably going complete itself later this year in 2014. And by that time probably 5,500 more households will have gotten taken care of that would have been left out entirely had the state had its way. They’re overwhelmingly African American, two-to-one elderly, two-to-one disabled, or both. And they’re not just along the coastline. They go further inland. So there’s forgotten families in the piney woods north of the Gulf Coast that got taken care of because of this. And they should have been. Because the utility with damaged distribution power lines not covered by insurance got money within a year. So an investor-owned, publicly-traded utility got hundreds of millions of dollars to put back those power lines to take power to these houses.

But our state didn’t want to put money into those homes themselves – at all. We had to fight to make that happen. So now we’ve got both pieces of that puzzle put into place. And people feel acknowledged and respected. Just as the folks in Turkey Creek felt invisible, all of those folks further inland who were described by the state as not eligible, not deserving of assistance, have been vindicated or validated.

“I was sitting on the sea wall looking at oak trees sticking up out of the water and thinking, ‘My life is wrecked. My family is ruined. What do I do?'”

Mahan: I know your involvement in this has really changed your life. Can you say something about the importance of this story in your life?

Morse: Well, sure. I came from a family that was very much white, establishment, well-to-do. I am a son of many generations of lawyers and ministers. So I had every opportunity and advantage a kid my age growing up in South Mississippi could have. And yet I knew there were others who didn’t have that. And I knew it broke along race lines largely. And that became more and more apparent to me as I got into my teens, as our schools integrated. And as I saw people in high school, I got to know the community around me better.

So what happened as a result of Hurricane Katrina was that trends that were already in place for me, which were to move increasingly toward public interest, got accelerated dramatically. So that after Katrina, as a result of joining the Mississippi Center for Justice, I became a full-time public interest lawyer and I was able to work not just on the environmental stuff but on housing issues, disaster recovery, public accountability issues in a way that I never would have dreamed and its been a life-changing experience for me and it’s been very rewarding.

It’s tapped into skills that I had not had to develop previously. And it has opened me up to a wider network of colleagues and acquaintances and friends and enriched my life immeasurably. So I feel very fortunate to have been put into the position that I had. Although if you have asked me on the day following it, when I was sitting on the sea wall looking at oak trees sticking up out of the water and thinking, “My life is wrecked. My family is ruined. What do I do?” I never would have believed it. So it’s been an extraordinary transformation.


To read articles by Reilly Morse and related materials, go to the Teaching Resources page.
Reilly Morse (far right), with Leslie Fields, Derrick Evans, Brentin Mock and Leah Mahan at the screening of Come Hell or High Water at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital

One Comment

  • Jewel says:

    i live in Texas I did some research and found out that downtown Dallas used to be a black community in order to move black people out for new development they did not ask them or respect their civil rights Whites used force ahd beat and threw black people out of their homes but this is a. New era whites cannot do that anymore I have nothing but respect for Derrick who is protecting what is his this move has had a great effect on black lives matters showing that fighting for what u believe in is worth fighting for organization s like fema needs to look into this situation to make sure that that mayor is doing the right thing and if not have him placed on charges of misuse of state funds Ray Nagan The x mayor of new. Orleans is a perfect example on the misuse of state funds. Laws need to have more strength to protect community s. Like. These from. Developers that just want to overlook The civil rights act and protecting the rights of people

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