Rev. Calvin Morris Reflects on a Lifelong Friend

Rev. Calvin S. Morris, Community Renewal Society

Rev. Calvin S. Morris, Ph.D. serves as Executive Director of the Community Renewal Society, a faith-based social justice advocacy organization in Chicago focusing on race and poverty. A civil rights and human rights activist, he worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., serving as Associate Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation BreadBasket (now Operation PUSH) in Chicago from 1967-71. He was Executive Director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, from 1973-76. He was also a university professor and theological dean from 1976-1998. Morris is frequently invited to preach, speak and lecture.

In 1954 I met an individual who would be my most enduring and beloved friend. We were both 12 years old.

Paul Ira Keyser and I met at Friends Select School, a Quaker secondary institution, located in center city Philadelphia, just a block or two from city hall and its iconic statue of William Penn, the founder of the city. Paul was a Jew and I an African-American. His family members were Conservative Jews and mine Christian.

We would spend more than half a century learning about each other, our familial backgrounds, our likes and dislikes, our political differences, and a relationship that superseded all of the aforementioned. We became friends for life.

Paul Ira Keyser and Rev. Calvin Morris

We did not always agree. I remember, on one occasion, mentioning to Paul that the American Medical Association did not allow black physicians into its membership. Paul insisted that just could not be, so I suggested that he ask his physician father whether it was. Paul returned to school the next day and admitted that his father affirmed what I had said.

When we met, the second World War was not yet a decade removed, and we talked about the war, the Holocaust, racism and anti-Semitism, and we learned about the troubles of our “tribes”, as Paul referred to them. Montgomery, Alabama and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement was a year away when we met.

I learned from Paul about the American Jewish Appeal and the Anti-Defamation League. He garnered from me an understanding of the NAACP and the Urban League. We talked about everything: our crushes on girls, the varsity sports we played together, and the familial challenges that were ours. Paul introduced me to chamber music and I exposed him to the Negro spirituals, jazz, the blues, and gospel music.

After high school we kept in touch with each other when we went away to different colleges. When I married, Paul was the best man at our wedding, and when he married I officiated at the wedding, since his first wife was not Jewish. As friends we shared our innermost feelings, fears and hopes with each other. We knew each other’s parents and siblings, and when my mother died (I was 26 years old) Paul was there.

There was no event, no aspect of our lives that did not include the other. He became a PhD in micro-biology and I a PhD in American and African-American history. But most of all, we were the best friend that the other ever had. I was an African-American and he was a Jew and since his passing there is, in my heart, an empty space that will never be filled.

Has this anything to do with race relations and relations among Blacks and Jews in the macro? I fear not. But, in the micro world of true individual souls, one a Jew and one an African-American, our friendship endured and, in memory, still does.

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