Jerry Clayton, Dr. Terry Morris and Currie Fisher greet one another Friday evening at the 100 Black Men of Columbus’ 15th Annual Protégé Banquet held at Mississippi University for Women. Photo by: Kelly Tippett/Dispatch Staff
April 14, 2012 9:20:55 PM
He was four years old the first time his mother beat him. She grabbed the nearest thing she could find, an extension cord, and lashed his legs until blood ran dark on his flesh. When she tired of him, she shoved him out the door, onto the wintry streets of Chicago, and let him fend for himself. He was the scapegoat amongst his five siblings, called worthless and unwanted more often than by his name.
At 13, his parents forced him onto a Greyhound bus headed south, where he landed in Plantersville, just outside of Tupelo. It was a strange new world, but his story was not over.
Terry Morris was rescued from the streets and taken to Alpha House Home for Boys in Tupelo. And slowly, the boy became a man.
Morris laid bare his life Friday night at the 100 Black Men of Columbus' 15th annual Protégé Banquet, hoping it would inspire the young men seated among their elders.
The local organization is a chapter of 100 Black Men of America, which formed in New York in 1963 as a way for African-American men to improve conditions in their communities through the mentorship, economic advancement and education of black youth. Today, there are 116 chapters nationwide and more than 10,000 members.
The annual banquet in Columbus highlights the young protégés, with benefits going toward scholarships and other programs. Organizers hope people like Morris, who served as guest speaker for the event, will show the young men that no matter what they have faced, they can make something of their lives.
Everywhere Morris goes, he tells his rags to riches story, speaking at a lengthy roster of places which include the White House, the Pentagon, the Department of Justice and the FBI and CIA headquarters.
It is a troubled tale of triumph.
"I'm still alive"
Morris says his childhood is a blurred memory of walking on eggshells, trying not to anger his mother but inevitably failing.
"I used to lie in bed as a kid and think, 'What did I do to deserve this? This is crazy," he recalls.
But Friday night, he stood at the podium in Mississippi University for Women's Hogarth Student Center, telling the assembled crowd of community leaders and up-and-coming high-schoolers that while the road to success is neither quick nor easy, the greatest struggle is conquering oneself.
Now 48, Morris works as an electrical systems engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., specializing in high-speed aerodynamics, solar-pumped lasers, flight simulators and wind tunnel design.
He holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Mississippi State University, a master's degree in electrical engineering from Old Dominion University, a doctorate in systems engineering from the University of Virginia, a certificate in public leadership from The Brookings Institute and received a fellowship to attend Massachusetts Institute for Technology.
There are no shortcuts, he told the teenagers. Success takes work, but the work is worth it.
"It's a miracle I'm still alive today," Morris said. "I overcame that, and I can look back now, because that was not the end of the story. Regardless of where you are, the story ain't over."
He called 100 Black Men a shining example of the way a man should behave. He believes love, trust, faith and hard work are paramount to triumphing over life's worst. But no one can do it by himself, he cautioned. The guidance of good men is critical, and he credits where he is today with men who served as his mentors.
These are lessons New Hope Middle School student Andy Stewart III, 14, already gets at home, but he said he still benefits from his involvement as a protégé in the local chapter of 100 Black Men. They push him to be even better, he says.
The organization provides weekly tutoring, counseling and monthly meetings where guest speakers discuss things like leadership, etiquette, business attire, character development and the importance of giving back what has been given to them.
It's a good organization, Stewart says. He believes all young black men should take part, even if their parents provide those lessons.
Juwan Taylor, a 15-year-old Caledonia High School student, says his three years as a protégé have given him a chance to succeed by providing opportunities and keeping him out of trouble.
The organization has been so successful with young men that community leaders have established a northeast Mississippi chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women with the goal of doing the same thing for young women.
Currie Fisher, a board member for the Columbus Municipal School District, and Alma Turner, a former board member for the district, are both involved with the group.
"We need mentors and role models," Turner said. "I think if we can give back, we owe it to give whatever we have."
Still in the fledgling stage, the women's group has a number of officer positions open because there simply aren't enough women involved just yet.
There is a great need for women to serve as role models for girls, Fisher said. There is a great need for women to help balance the equation, because someday, the male protégés will become good men who need good women to work alongside them to strengthen and better their communities.
"Never give up"
Morris contends that even with the success he has achieved, his story continues to grow through sharing it with youth who might benefit.
People want to believe such horrific child abuse as he experienced doesn't happen in America, he said. But it does. And though adults looked past him, refusing to intervene, he has vowed not to be one of those people.
Sometimes, he says, it's enough just to let a child know he or she is not alone. That some of the successful people they admire lived through similar childhoods.
Next month, the local protégés will work on community projects, and in June, they will attend Science Camp at the Mississippi School for Math and Science. Later in the year, they will take field trips, learn time management, participate in the United Way's Day-to-Care project and provide meals for the needy during the holidays.
As much as life has changed over the years, the fundamentals are enduring, Morris said, and those fundamentals are taught daily by mentors like 100 Black Men and the opportunities they provide.
It's about planting seeds, he says. With the right nurturing, the mentors hope the youths' roots will grow strong and deep until one day, as adults, they will plant the seeds for a new generation.
"Life has a purpose," said Dr. John Robinson, president of the Columbus chapter of 100 Black Men. "Circumstances don't dictate what you can accomplish in life. Persevere. Never give up."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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