Joe Morse
(1943 — 2017)


As remembered by Paul T. Murray
October 3, 2017

Joe Morse, 1943-2017

Joe Morse, a lifelong organizer for human rights, died on September 28 in Winona, Minnesota.

Joe grew up in the village of Dakota, in Winona County, Minnesota, where his family operated an apple orchard. He learned the value of hard work helping in the orchard after school and during vacations. The Morse family was very involved in the Catholic Church. Joe attended parochial elementary and high schools in Winona and entered Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary at St. Mary's College to prepare for the Catholic priesthood.

Joe participated in his first civil rights demonstration, a march protesting the imprisonment of five civil rights workers in Americus, Georgia, in October 1963. The following year he applied to be part of Freedom Summer. After orientation in Memphis, he was assigned to Meridian where he worked on voter registration and organizing the Freedom Democratic Party. At the end of the summer he decided to remain in Meridian on the staff of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Joe applied for a leave of absence from the seminary, but was refused. That was the end of his plan to become a priest. Among his many accomplishments in Meridian, he helped organize an effective boycott of the local Winn-Dixie that persuaded the supermarket to hire black cashiers. He formed a lasting friendship with George Smith, a Meridian native and fellow CORE organizer, and married Mattie April, also a Meridian native. In 1967 Joe was hired by the Child Development Group of Mississippi to organize Head Start centers in Kemper County. Joe was arrested six or seven times for his civil rights work in Mississippi.

Joe moved to Boston where he was involved organizing against nuclear power with the Clamshell Alliance. He also helped found Emerge, one of the first groups to help men change their violent behavior toward women.

In 1983 moved back to Winona. He organized a shelter for battered women in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and a program called Counseling for Abusive Men. He also helped organize Beyond Tough Guise, a program to change the social norms and environment that encourage boys to grow up to be violent men. In his hometown he was instrumental in starting Winona United, an organization to create a welcoming attitude toward all people.

Joe's great passion in his later years was the preservation of the majestic bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in Winona County. He organized a coalition to prevent the mining of sand used in the fracking of natural gas. In 2016 they persuaded the county commissioners to pass the first-ever ban on frac sand mining.

Joe Morse received numerous accolades for his community organizing including an award from the Winona Women's Resource Center which he accepted two days before his death.

A year before he died Joe recorded an oral history interview, "Minnesota to Mississippi: Civil Rights Organizing, 1964-1966," covering his civil rights career. Friends may obtain a copy by contacting Shiloh Gulbranson at Media Works Production, email:, phone (612) 760-6950.


As remembered by Phyllis Cunningham
October 3, 2017

Joe was from my home town, Winona MN. I knew him to be an energetic, untiring worker for social justice.

Joe went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 and worked in Meridian and surrounding counties. He frequently returned to Meridian for the annual Mississippi Civil Rights Martyrs Service and Conference. He was also very involved in anti-war, Native American, environmental, domestic violence and sexual abuse issues.

Joe was a great organizer and attributed this to his experience in Mississippi. One of his Winona endeavors was establishing "Beyond Tough Guise" ... educating and encouraging men of all ages to respect women and community. I can say, for my Minnesota home town and Winona County, Joe was highly respected, had a monumental impact and will be sorely missed by me and many. What a guy!


As remembered by Doug Nopar
October 7, 2017

Hello all civil rights veterans and workers,

For those that knew Joe Morse, I'm sad to report that Joe passed away on Thursday, September 28th.

Occasionally, Joe would share the emails and analysis of civil rights veterans with his organizing allies here in southeast Minnesota. It was his way of keeping us analytically and strategically sharp. I've taken the liberty to swipe the source of a few of those emails to send out this message. I hope that's okay, and apologize in advance for intruding in the correspondence of a very sacred "club.'

Joe's work during Freedom Summer and for several years afterwards in the South fundamentally shaped and informed more than 50 years of incredible organizing work. We're also working on a book about Joe, to carry forward the lessons and legacy of his life's work.

Joe was diagnosed with liver cancer about three years ago and lived far longer than was originally anticipated. He continued organizing until about two weeks before his passing. He had a remarkably quick exit. Two days before he died, Joe was honored in Winona, Minnesota, his home for the last 30 years, at the Women's Resource Center annual meeting , receiving the Creating A Safer Community award. It was a packed house and he made some very powerful remarks. He's been quite weak the last month. That very afternoon of the award, Joe had been to see the doctor who informed him he couldn't do the procedure he'd planned on for the next day, as Joe wasn't strong enough. Joe told his partner, Linda, that he was relieved to not have to make any more decisions. The doctor told Joe to sign up for hospice. On Thursday, the hospice people came about 2pm, and Joe died about 4pm, going way faster than anyone expected.

Take care, everyone, and thank you for all of your tremendous work to build a better world.

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