Morris Dillard dies at 83, shaped Atlanta from student movement to Olympics

Morris Dillard was active in the Atlanta Student Movement and later worked for MARTA and Atlanta's Olympic Committee
Caption
Morris Dillard was active in the Atlanta Student Movement and later worked for MARTA and Atlanta's Olympic Committee

Credit: courtesy of the family

For most people, a trip to Paris would signal a vacation or perhaps a business meeting.

For longtime Atlanta community activist and public servant Morris Dillard, it was a life-changer.

Recipient of a study and travel abroad grant through philanthropist Charles Merrill, the then-Morehouse College student backpacked Europe in 1959.

Arriving in Paris, the son of Alabama share croppers fell in love with the city and what it represented, the ability to go and do as he pleased, free of the rigid strictures of the Jim Crow South.

“It was a liberating experience, although I was very young and not well prepared for it,” Dillard said in an interview for the Digital Library of Georgia. “The chains, if you please, that held me when I was growing up were further loosened by the experience in Paris.”

Morris Dillard, 83, died of cancer Oct. 1. He is survived by his wife Brenda, daughters Karimah Dillard-Mickey, Pamela Dillard and Sharon Kleckley and son Morris Dillard Jr. He is also survived by eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Studying at the Sorbonne before returning to Morehouse, he came home determined to fight for integration.

The opportunity arrived with the early 1960s-era Atlanta Student Movement. Karimah Dillard-Mickey said he was involved in community activism, including a stint as the Atlanta chapter president of the NAACP.

He worked behind the scenes as students, tired of black leaders negotiating with city hall to win concessions, took to the streets with non-violent marches, sit-ins and boycotts. Then he overcame his initial fears that his involvement would create repercussions for his family. He took to the streets with others, was arrested and convicted of criminal trespass and served three days at the Atlanta city prison farm.

“It was a bad experience. No privacy. And it was dirty,” recalled Dillard.

His arrest came into play when he applied for a post-college job at Albany State University. The application form asked, “Have you ever been arrested?” Dillard wrote, “Yes.”

Explaining the incident to a school official during an interview, Dillard was told that arrest didn’t “count,” and was urged to change his answer because it could cause a problem. Dillard refused. He got hired anyway.

Integrity, coupled with passion, intelligence and humility were central for Dillard, said family and friends.

His activism set him on a path to prominent roles with the fledgling MARTA transit service and the Atlanta Olympic committee, both of which helped define modern Atlanta, Dillard-Mickey said.

He was hired early at MARTA, handling press and community engagement, and swung into action after the first property-tax-based referendum to fund it failed in the late 1960s. He went door-to-door, extolling the benefits of the planned system to a wary African American community and appealing to its leadership to provide input. The second MARTA referendum passed in 1971.

“It was hard to not like Morris,” said retired MARTA general manager Ken Gregor.

“Just as important as the folks who designed and built the system and financed the system was the function that he provided,” he said.

Fluent in French, Dillard helped negotiate a key contract with a European firm to manufacture rail cars.

Transportation consultant and friend Grady Smith with Vanasse, Hangen, Brustlin Inc. said Dillard’s community service bent was reflected in his push to build the so-called Proctor Creek MARTA line, which would have served the massive Perry Homes public housing project in northwest Atlanta. Only a stub of that line was ever built.

“It wasn’t about economic development and huge buildings. It was ‘We need this connection for people and neighborhoods,’” Smith said.

Dillard wooed visiting delegates from the International Olympic Committee in the early 1990s, assuring them that MARTA could effectively transport attendees. By that time, he was senior vice president for operations and support, overseeing everything from tickets to credentials and health matters.

He later left the transit agency and went to work for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. After the games, he co-founded a transportation consulting firm.

“He was a renaissance man in every sense of the word,” said Karimah Dillard. “It was as if his career had been scripted.”

An Oct. 23, 11 a.m. celebration of Dillard’s life is set at Morehouse for a maximum of 90 family members, close friends and professional colleagues. Others can watch a livestream at https://www.mbfh.com/obituary/mr-morris-dilliard-sr.

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