Allan Morrison: barrier breaker, civil rights hero
Allan Morrison was Stars and Stripes’ first and only black reporter in World War II, when the services were segregated and African-American units for the most part were consigned to support duties in the rear.
But not all of them. "During and since D-Day barrage balloons flown by a Negro barrage balloon battalion have provided a screen of rubber several miles long on the two main beachheads assisting in the protection of troop landings and the unloading of supplies," one of Morrison's stories began.
It was datelined "A U.S. Beachhead, July 5," and detailed the work of the unit — the only black combat group in the first assault forces to hit the coasts — to provide cover from enemy strafing on D-Day with their blimps, which they'd flown across the English Channel three men to a balloon. "Some of the men died alongside the infantryman they came in to protect, and their balloons drifted off," Morrison wrote.
Morrison, born in Toronto in 1916 and at heart a New Yorker, was then an Army sergeant. But he'd gained journalism experience in civilian life and co-founded a publication in New York City, the Negro World Digest.
The Digest, which published from July-December in 1940, sought to condense the best writing by or about blacks into a monthly publication.
Morrison was still in uniform, strolling along the Champs-Elysees in Paris, when he met with a Chicago newsman who plucked him for a new national magazine designed for African-American readers. Called Ebony, it would later be one of the oldest, most successful and important black publications, still in existence today.
Morrison became Ebony's New York editor in 1948, and an influential voice on civil rights and the arts. When the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954, ruled on Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregation unconstitutional, Morrison was the only journalist at the headquarters of the NAACP, which had brought the winning lawsuit.
After he wrote a piece in 1958 on A. Philip Randolph, the labor and civil rights leader received a letter from Martin Luther King Jr. ''I have just finished reading in the Ebony Magazine the magnificent article on your illustrious career," King wrote.
Morrison was "one of the most gifted and conscientious black journalists I have known," according to one of his editors, Ben Burns, "a dependable and forthright intellectual who showed great acuity in the many articles he later wrote."
Morrison also moved smoothly among famed writers, actors and singers, doing revealing interviews with James Baldwin, Frank Sinatra and Tallulah Bankhead. Would racial equality ever arrive, he asked the actress, "I hope so dahling. I am an optimist," she replied.
Described as a man of "superb wit and expansive memory," he was apparently an Anglophile — a cricket fan who had "an English air," according to one obituary in 1968. He was considered an authority on jazz and classical music. He co-hosted a jazz program, served as board chairman of the New World Symphony and was a frequent contributor to Downbeat magazine.
Morrison died at 52 from complications of extreme high blood pressure.
The Schomburg Center in the New York Public Library in Harlem holds his archival papers.