Morris James Dillard Sr.
July 12, 1938 – October 1, 2021
Celebrating The Man, His Life, His Legacy
Humble Man of God… Brilliant Thinker… Passionate Organizer… Elegant Linguist… Powerful Orator… Inspiring Educator… Devoted Husband… Father… Friend.
The eighth of nine children born to Sarah and Elisha Dillard Sr., Morris was born in Rutledge, Alabama on July,12, 1938, and raised in a farming community east of Rutledge in the small town of Luverne. Morris was born into a family of sharecroppers who were very close knit, well respected in both Black and white society, and deeply devoted to their beloved Kings Chapel A.M.E. Church, where Morris’ father, affectionately known as “Big Daddy”, was a Deacon. Morris graduated Valedictorian from Crenshaw County Training School in 1955, and although Big Daddy ultimately wanted Morris and his brother, Elisha Jr. to take over the farm, his mother, “Big Mama”, had other ideas. Big Mama believed in the power of prayer and a good education, so Morris stepped off of the tractor into the classroom, when he was afforded a partial scholarship to attend the prestigious Morehouse College, in the “big city” of Atlanta, Georgia. At Morehouse, Morris would encounter the late Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, who mentored him and exposed him to possibilities he had never before conceived. Morris describes his time under Dr. Mays’ tutelage as a time when, “Dr. Mays began to systematically help me unlearn everything I knew about ‘my place’ as a young Black man growing up in a rigidly segregated society.” Dr. Mays began to pour into Morris ideas about who he could be and what he could do, and subsequently Morris considered Dr. Mays as the one person, besides his parents in Luverne, who had the single greatest influence on his life.
While at Morehouse, Morris was elected to the Student Council and pledged Phi Beta Sigma fraternity becoming its chapter President. Morris was awarded a scholarship by Charles E. Merrill (of Merrill Lynch), to “explore the world” where he backpacked across Europe, eventually landing in Paris where he became enamored with French language and culture and received a Diploma in French Language and Literature from the Sorbonne at the University of Paris. Morris would eventually become fluent in the language subsequently declaring French as his major. Upon graduating from Morehouse College in 1960, Morris would enjoy ten years teaching French at the secondary and post-secondary school levels at Morehouse College, Albany State College, Fort Valley State College, and in the public schools of White Plains, NY. Morris earned his Master of Arts degree in French from Atlanta University in 1963.
Morris described his time abroad as a tremendous turning point in his life as it would loosen the chains of segregation that constrained him mentally and psychologically as a young man growing up in the deeply segregated South. It was then that he took on a leadership role in the Atlanta Student Movement beside his dear friends and comrades Lonnie King (Morehouse ’67) and Charles A. Black (Morehouse ’62). With a commitment to human rights, Morris employed his many talents to ending segregation in the city of Atlanta. By the time his eldest daughter, Artresa, attended Clark College, the Atlanta Student Movement had been responsible for desegregating public and private accommodations in Atlanta and throughout the state of Georgia; starting with Rich’s Department Store. Today the old Rich’s building stands as The Sam Nunn Federal Building, where one of his nieces is the Center Director for the building’s day care center.
From 1967 to 1970, Morris served as the Labor Affairs Representative at the National Urban League’s Southern Regional office in Atlanta; and, in 1968, Morris would reprise his role as a community organizer becoming the Executive Secretary of the Atlanta Branch of the NAACP. In this role, Morris would be instrumental in helping the students at Eva L. Thomas High School organize to keep their school from being shut down; as well as work to change the face of the broadcasting industry by negotiating with key executives to hire more people of color as TV anchors, radio announcers and production staff.
Morris committed his life to Christ and became a member of Radcliffe Presbyterian Church more than 50 years ago, where he was an Elder and actively involved in several ministries. Morris had four children: Artresa, Morris Jr., Pamela, and Karimah. After joining his life with his wife Brenda, Sharon joined the family and became sibling number five.
From 1969 to 1980, Morris also served as a Consultant with Frontiers Unlimited, Inc. (a national firm founded by his friends and fellow activists Charles A. Black, the late Julian Bond, late Lonnie King and late John Lewis), assisting federally-funded Community Action Programs throughout the nation.
After dedicating much of his adult life to organizing and educating, by 1970, Morris would begin a new career as a transportation administrator by joining MARTA as one of “The Original 13”. In 1971, Morris played a vital role in the success of the MARTA referendum which would expand MARTA services in Fulton and Dekalb counties. Drawing on his tactical skills as a strategist and organizer, Morris and his team would go door to door in the community to encourage residents to get out and vote on the referendum. And not surprisingly, Morris’s facility with the French language and familiarity with French culture made him an ideal candidate to not just serve as an interpreter, but actually engage in negotiations with the French at Bombardier Transportation in Paris, France, to bring Atlanta’s first ever heavy rail train system to the metro Atlanta area. During his tenure at MARTA, Morris would quickly become MARTA’s Director of Community Relations and over the next two decades, he would take on several other leadership roles including Assistant Manager of Planning and Public Affairs, and Executive Assistant to the General Manager before rising to the role of Second in Command at MARTA as the Deputy General Manager.
In 1990, Morris was presented with the adventure of a lifetime when he joined the Atlanta Organizing Committee to win the bid for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. Morris was responsible for devising a viable transportation plan for the Olympics, and after winning the bid, Morris would trade in his bus pass for an Olympic badge becoming Senior Vice President of Operations and Support.
After completing his time with ACOG, Morris, still teeming with energy and ideas, would co-found the consulting firm, DW & Associates with his long-time friend and colleague, Theodore Williams. Together Morris and Theodore would spend the rest of their lives consulting with states and municipalities on transportation planning and community engagement.
Throughout his illustrious career spanning more than sixty years, Morris was presented with many accolades and proclamations from the city of Atlanta, the Fulton County Commission, MARTA and others, lauding him for the impact that he has made on the city of Atlanta. While these accolades were much appreciated, there was nothing he loved more than his family. Morris, also known by his children, grandchildren and other progeny as “Papa”, “Daddy” and “Uncle Morris”, was a treasure trove of wisdom, generosity and boundless love. As he comfortably filled the role of the Dillard Family Patriarch, Morris would liberally share his wisdom and intelligence with his immediate and extended family as he provided guidance (solicited or not) on everything from career choices to matters of the heart. And even as driven and as ambitious as Morris was, he always found time to attend his children’s concerts, plays, and football games; cart his grandchildren back and forth between track meets and cheerleading practice, and, of course, his usual delegating while helping to organize family reunions.
Morris was awarded Lifetime Hall Passes for sharing his wisdom and experiences with students in Atlanta Public Schools where his children received their primary and secondary education. Like his mother, Morris held a firm belief in the values of education and service, and nothing made him prouder than the fact every one of his five children and seven grandchildren have graduated from college or enrolled in a branch of the Military; with his youngest grandson on track to graduate from Cornell University in 2022. Four of his children and two of his grandchildren also hold Master’s degrees.
It is no secret that Morris was swept off of his feet by the beautiful and talented Ms. Brenda Robinson (Brenda Dillard), who would become his friend, wife and life partner. Morris and Brenda had a love that lasted nearly four decades. They travelled the world together, and grew their family together, all the while deepening their love and commitment to each other. Morris and Brenda were a beloved couple, entertaining hosts of friends and loved ones in their living room salon. Brenda would be by Morris’s side for every triumph and defeat, for every disappointment and shining moment; until the very end.
Morris is preceded in death by his eldest daughter, Artresa Harris; father and mother, Elisha and Sarah Dillard; and all of his siblings. Morris is survived by his wife, Brenda Dillard, their children Morris J. Dillard, Jr., Sharon Kleckley (Marshall), Pamela Dillard, Karimah Dillard-Mickey (Patricia); Their grandchildren, Tyeshia Dillard, Morris J. Dillard III, Gabrielle Dillard, Paris Howland, Morgan Peel, Wesley Peel (Karina), Lacee Barnard (Elijah), Kendra Peel, their great-granddaughter, Renee Jordan Payne; and 13 nephews, 13 nieces, 34 great-nephews, 28 great-nieces, 37 great-great nephews, 25 great-great nieces, 3 great-great-great nephews, and 4 great-great-great nieces.
Everyone who ever had the good fortune to know Morris, knew him as a Gentleman and a Scholar, and held him in the Highest Regard. His legacy will endure for forever.
Morris J. Dillard, Sr.’s Celebration of Life will be held at the Shirley Massey Executive Center at Morehouse College on October 23rd, 2021 at 11 am.
Due to COVID-19 pandemic limitations, attendance is limited to family, close friends and colleagues.
The public may watch via livestream at the Murray Brothers website https://www.mbfh.com/obituary/mr-morris-dilliard-sr