The moment had arrived. For days Robin Morris had been growing increasingly apprehensive about the role she must play on this night.
Her part must be played to perfection. She must speak for her late father in a way that reflected her moral outrage at her father's experience and yet not go over the line and strike a bitter note.
Professor Robin Morris had traveled to Phoenix from the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she teaches law herself, to accept an award for excellence in her father's name at the fourth annual Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship dinner sponsored by the Hayzel B. Daniels Bar Association.
She must state hard facts without opening critical wounds.
MDNMProfessor John P. Morris, her father, had been a legend at the Arizona State University College of Law. He had taught there for 25 years before succumbing to a heart attack at 65, just two days before Christmas.
He is scheduled to be honored by the ASU law school on March 4 in a special ceremony consisting of the planting of a tree and the erection of a memorial plaque.
Nevertheless, Professor Morris' death meant there was no longer a single black faculty member at the law school.
The simmering racial problem that exists at the ASU law school was revealed in Professor Morris' papers following his death.
In a final letter to Dean Richard J. Morgan, two days before his death, Professor Morris had written of his fellow faculty members:
"Clearly there is a significant group of the majority of the faculty that is opposed to affirmative action, diversity, equal opportunity, or any other mechanism that may be used to achieve substantial minority participation on the Law Faculty."
In the same letter, he had explained how the "corrosive effect of racial hostility had taken its toll."
Faculty memos among Professor Morris' papers revealed more. They made it plain that various professors openly opposed the recruitment of minorities to teach at the school.
For example, one faculty member had written of affirmative action:
"The justice of these well-intentioned programs is questionable and while they produce some commendable results, they also cause some substantial undesirable consequences."
In other memos, faculty members blamed minority faculty and students for bringing down the school's national ratings.
One professor wrote of the recruiting of blacks:
"I would like to throw on the table for discussion one such harmful consequence: a very aggressive affirmative action program in hiring and admissions is corrosive of substantive quality in institutions like ours that have (a) scarce resources and (b) have yet to build a solid and enduring national reputation for academic excellence."
So it was Robin Morris' job to read her father's acceptance letter to the assembled black lawyers at the dinner in the light of this knowledge.
The letter recounted Professor Morris' disappointment with the views of his fellow faculty members at ASU and revealed that he had finally resigned "primarily because of the racist attitudes."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The room grew very silent as Robin Morris read her father's words.
Then she added a few words of her own:
"My father was talking about an institutional mentality that says diversity is inconsistent with quality. We've got to change that. We've got to recognize that diversity means excellence across a broader spectrum."
Hesitating briefly, she said, "We must recommit ourselves. We must tear down the walls and erase the mindset that denies equal chance."
Every person in the room knew exactly what she meant.
In the audience were state Supreme Court Justice Robert Corcoran, Appeals Court Judge Noel Fidel, Representative Art Hamilton, Judge Barry Silverman and former chief justice Cecil Patterson, now in charge of civil rights for the Attorney General's Office.
Suddenly, the crowd burst into heartfelt applause. And then, very quickly, this turned into a standing ovation, for both father and daughter.