Sybil Haydel Morial’s involvement in human and civil rights dates back to the early 1950s. At that time, shortly after the Brown v Board of Education decision, Mrs. Morial participated in some of the first tests for integration of New Orleans’ universities, attempting to enroll at both Tulane and Loyola. In 1962, when the Louisiana Legislature enacted racist laws in response to the court decisions outlawing segregation, she was the lone plaintiff in a successful challenge to a statute prohibiting public school teachers from being involved in any organization advocating integration.
Throughout her early life, she made inroads in both education and voting rights for blacks. After graduating from Boston University she was one of the first African-Americans to teach in the Newton, Massachusetts public school system. Upon returning to New Orleans, Mrs. Morial became an energetic force in a number of organizations, particularly the Urban League of Greater New Orleans and the League of Women Voters. Out of that experience she became a founder of the Louisiana League of Good Government (LLOGG), a non-partisan, interracial women’s organization devoted to guaranteeing civil liberties and full participation in government for all Louisiana citizens. This organization engaged in constant battles to get African-Americans on the voting roles in Louisiana. At the same time it educated new and potential voters in the structures and workings of government as well as community issues.
Mrs. Morial continued teaching in New Orleans throughout the 50s and 60s, serving in several communities including the Desire Housing Project. In 1977, she made a career change and became an administrator at Xavier University where she served for 28 years. While raising five children, she became an active participant, and eventual leader, of a number of major community organization in New Orleans. Mrs. Morial campaigned for her husband’s election as both state legislator in 1968 and mayor in 1978--both firsts for an African-American. After her husband’s death in 1989, she was asked to run for mayor. She declined, preferring to continue her personal work on selected causes. Her eldest son Marc became mayor of New Orleans in 1994 and served for two terms.
She was a catalyst for educational programs designed to sharpen community awareness of the past and current status of the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1984, when the Louisiana World Exposition was being planned, Mrs. Morial insisted that a black presence was imperative in a city with a majority African-American population. She initiated the funding and participated in the design of the Afro-American Pavilion which presented the contributions of African Americans to this country. In 1987, while Associate Dean at Xavier University, she was executive producer of the acclaimed film, A House Divided, which documented desegregation in New Orleans.
She is the recipient of many awards including the Martin Luther King Lifetime Achievement Award, the Women of Power Award from the National Urban League, The ALIOT Award (A Legend in Her Own Time) from the Faulkner Society, the New Orleans Legend Award from the City of New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Mayor, to mention a few.
Today Sybil Morial maintains her position as the matriarch of a family synonymous with social progress and leadership both in New Orleans and in the nation. In 2014, she was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Xavier University. She earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston University.
Sybil Morial’s recently published memoir, “Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment” is receiving favorable reviews.