Donald Morton sits quietly in a corner of the Hollywood Grill on Concord Pike, looking sharp. Dressed in blue-and-white checked shirt, navy pinstriped pants and lizard-skin shoes—he has them in four colors—he watches as congressional candidate Lisa Blunt Rochester, klieg-light smile shining, takes control of the room. While the glad-handing begins and the campaign fervor swirls about, Morton watches attentively, appearing for all the world as the personification of cool.
As the first black nominee for Congress in Delaware, Blunt Rochester offers some hope for his community, at least symbolically. African-Americans everywhere continue to suffer the social and economic injustices that have plagued them for centuries. That has always troubled Morton. But with every new incident of police violence against black men—Baltimore, Ferguson, Tulsa, Charlotte—proof mounts that they are not valued in the same way their white counterparts are.
Among other things, police violence casts into deep relief the inequalities and injustices felt by black Americans, but many folks simply do not see it—even many of those who consider themselves enlightened about issues of class and race. One such as the Rev. Dr. Morton might be tempted to grab their lapels, shake some sense into them, but his diplomatic skills and rock-solid faith have prevented that—so far.
Across the country, outrage over violence against blacks has boiled over into violent protests against police. And it could happen here. Frustration over the shooting of wheelchair-bound Jeremy “Bam” McDole by Wilmington police in September 2015 reached a peak when an investigation revealed no wrongdoing. Since then, some say, there is a need to step forward with more than talk and reason.
“People are incredibly pissed off,” Morton says, “and they have a right to be.”
Morton won’t call for violence, as some have tried, but it has gotten very hard for him to keep his cool.
This is Blunt Rochester’s moment, so after she speaks, people flock to her. But they flock to Morton, too. They want to shake his hand. Discuss issues. Set up meetings. They want a place in his orbit, because in Wilmington, Morton has influence.
The senior pastor of 150-year-old Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral in the Quaker Hill-West Center City section of Wilmington, Morton preaches the Word, but he carries a strong message beyond the walls of his church.
In late October, he took over for his mother, Bishop Aretha Morton, the first woman in Delaware to be ordained in the Baptist Church—an occasion that prompted many threats on her life all those years ago. But Bishop Morton stood strong for her congregation and community, and she taught her son to do the same.
“Aretha Morton is nobody to be messed with,” says Mahkeib Booker, founder of Wilmington’s Black Lives Matter chapter. “She will whup you and get into the streets.”
“She’s my hero,” Morton says.
Donald Morton’s style of confrontation doesn’t include whupping. But in a city that in many ways continues a sad, traumatic history of race relations, he won’t stand quietly by as injustices mount. Founder of the Complexities of Color Coalition, Morton is committed to confronting those who wish to harm African-Americans. He aims to fight an entrenched opponent from the pulpit and the streets, to “bridge the block and the boardroom,” he says, while restoring the black church to the place of prominence and activism—spiritually and socially—it enjoyed during the height of the civil rights movement 50 years ago. And that often requires speaking some uncomfortable truths.
“White supremacy comes with the connotation that whites are superior to black folks and have the ability to use that power to oppress,” Morton says. “Racism does not overtly say that.”
Morton is committed to confronting those who wish to harm African-Americans. He aims to fight an entrenched opponent from the pulpit and the streets, to “bridge the block and the boardroom,” he says.
Morton’s eloquence serves him well in discussions with decision makers and influential parties of all kinds. When the action moves to the street, the 47-year-old Morton moves there, too, leading marches and speaking to those who must absorb the brunt of the inequity every day. People of all walks respect him.
Crafting a message that can rally the troops and counter the most erudite—often most offensive—arguments of opponents takes intellect, and it requires the courage to make enemies on both sides of the struggle. “I have two big bodyguards,” he says.
Morton is not only involved in complicated issues—he is a complicated person whose beliefs blend a healthy dose of the Almighty with some old-fashioned toughness.
“On the one hand, he’s aggressive and assertive, but he’s also diplomatic,” says New Castle County Councilman Jea Street. “The foundation he has in his Christian faith is reflected in his style of doing things. He’s not afraid.”
After the McDole shooting, Morton and others urged the community to remain calm. When, after an eight-month investigation, no charges were brought against the officers involved, it became harder for no one more than Morton to ask everyone to contain their anger. Yet he continues to work toward a way to change hearts and minds for the betterment of all African-Americans in a way that doesn’t compromise his principles.
Morton’s goal is to replace a system that robs African-Americans of their self-esteem with a path to opportunity in a just society. Booker talks about “economic independence for the black man” and the importance of building a structure that brings African-Americans power. He doesn’t favor violence, but don’t mistake that for an unwillingness to enter the fray.
“A lot of people think African-Americans only want to shoot down whitey,” Booker says. “If that were the case, there would be a lot of white people dead. All the black man wants is to be empowered.”
Booker, Morton and others believe a system that subjugates and marginalizes African-Americans prevents that goal. It goes beyond simple racism to an inherent problem that has prevailed for centuries.
“From slavery days, it has always been about equality,” Booker says. “Things are not equal in 2016.”
Bishop Morton estimates that her son was “8 or 9” when he asked to stay home from church one Sunday.
“He said, ‘I have been going to church all of my life,’” she says. “I let him stay home that one time. He didn’t ask again.”
He knew better. If Aretha Morton was strong enough to stand tall against clergymen who threatened to kill her if she preached—“She said, ‘You’ll have to kill me,’” Donald says—she wasn’t going to let her son miss church. Her two children (Morton’s sister, Lorraine, is 53) were going to be polite and well-rounded. So Donald played the drums in the church band, studied the Gospel and served as a junior deacon.
“He had such a great upbringing,” says state Rep. Stephanie Bolden. “His mother raised her two children on the Eastside of Wilmington, in the inner city, so he has a good perspective on how to connect with people.”
It wasn’t always easy to be the son of a minister. Booker says that when he first met Morton, he thought he would be “an L7 square.” While the other kids went to the playground, Morton went to church. When he did get out to play, he wore shoes, even though the other boys wore sneakers. But while the clothes Morton wore as a youth presaged his clean look today, he soon proved himself to his peers.
“He always was a cool, calm brother, ever since we were in the park playing on the swings and monkey bars and playing basketball,” Booker says.
As a teen, Morton and his family moved into the house that now serves as Tabernacle Full Gospel’s headquarters, on a stretch of Washington Street known as Aretha Morton Way. After graduating from Howard Career Center in 1987, he completed undergraduate studies at Philadelphia College of Bible and postgraduate work at Friends International Christian University in California and at Newburgh Theological Seminary in Indiana. His blended family with wife, Nicole, includes five children.
In 1996, Morton founded Rhema Christian Center in Wilmington. He pastored the church for 16 years before he “came back home.” He credits his 20 years at Rhema with giving him the “bumps and bruises” that will help him at Tabernacle. As he prepared to return, a decision influenced by a combination of his mother’s preparation to step down as senior pastor and a battle with prostate cancer (diagnosed in 2014, he is now cancer-free), he did so as an experienced churchman who was prepared to take over the family business. “I gained some perspectives that I wouldn’t have gained if I had stayed [at Rhema],” he says. That confidence allows him to embrace the fact that his mother remains a prominent figure in the church. He is not intimidated by her strong personality or impressive legacy.
“Unlike many pastors, who view the former pastor as a liability, I see it as a tremendous benefit,” Morton says. “It helps to bridge the relational gap and the generational gap. I need her to smooth the way.”
On the wall behind Morton’s desk is a collection of handprints from those who work for him. They may at first appear like a grade-school art project, but each represents a person, and together they symbolize the heart of Morton’s mission. He wants to reach individuals, to help them recognize their humanity, thus empowering the community so it can make the society that has failed them into a more equitable place.
Such a goal might not be possible in a world in which many people are unwilling to recognize African-Americans as equals. Because of that, Morton’s sermons can be raw. One, for example, was titled, “Surviving Public Lynchings.” By combining the religious and social ideas of justice, Morton hopes to “restore the black church to its historical context” and have it serve the same role it did during the Civil Rights Movement, when African-Americans received weekly doses of inspiration to continue the struggle.
“When I think about the black church, I think of it as the epicenter of black life,” Morton says. “It was forced to be everything black folk needed economically, educationally, etc. The only hope for black folk to fight social decay is to have the black church again be the center of black life.”
When Morton attended a recent seminar at the Princeton Theological Seminary, the presenter began by showing the scene from “Roots” in which Kunta Kinte is beaten because he won’t accept his slave name, Toby. After the clip, the facilitator began to move on, unaware that many in the room were weeping.
“Someone stood up and said, ‘That’s not a comma. We need a full stop,’” Morton says.
The group needed an hour to process the scene. “The abuse of flesh in the black community is still real,” Morton says. “‘Roots’ is old, but there is no post-trauma to it yet.”
Morton insists that he and other clergy are “attempting to minister to a people affected by trauma.” He cites Dr. Joy DeGruy from Portland State University, who describes the condition of “post-traumatic slave syndrome” and attributes urban violence to a culture and behaviors that have been passed down from generation to generation. The result is a set of expectations of failure and brutality from which African-Americans cannot escape.
“[DeGruy] argues that black folk don’t have low self-esteem,” Morton says. “That would be an upgrade. We have vacant esteem. We are bankrupt. We have been so robbed of our history and any value we have. The physical shackles of slavery no longer exist, but the soft white supremacy still exists and is just as powerful.”
That condition can be found in everyday life and in the moments of most powerful crises. A bystander who filmed McDole’s shooting on his phone can be heard saying near monotone, “Put your hands up, cuz,” and, “Drop it.” There is no emotion or outrage, only a sort of dull acceptance of what might come. “This is what we’re used to,” Morton says.
The question, then, is how to change this. What can be done? As athletes protest and marches continue in the quest for social justice, Morton and others in Wilmington and beyond work to create an environment in which real progress can be made. When asked what he would do if he could solve problems facing the black community, Morton begins by saying there has to be a type of discussion that hasn’t been held yet.
“I’ve got to be able to tell [white people] something that is very fresh to [them],” Morton says. “We’ve been the ones who have been silent for centuries. Now it’s time for y’all to listen to us. Let us say what we have been wanting to say for decades.”
For Morton, a critical point for African-Americans has been reached. Those who ask black citizens “to get past their anger” must understand that until the actions that have raised the ire stop, there can’t be any forgiveness. “You can’t expect me to get past something you’re still doing,” Morton says. “You don’t give us a chance to heal if you don’t stop hurting us.”
Morton chooses a “theological lens” through which he will address the problem, but even that poses some issues. “How do I galvanize, educate and empower my people and at the same time understand that much of what I want to accomplish has to include the dominant culture?” he asks.
It is a delicate balance that others in the religious community feel acutely. The Rev. Lawrence Livingston, pastor of Wilmington’s Mother African Union Church, believes the black church has a significant role in finding solutions. But he cautions that the roiling waters within the African-American community are being stirred by outside forces and that, if there is an “ignition of the fire,” it will come from the outside.
The Rev. Patty Downing, pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church, just blocks from Tabernacle, has worked beside Morton and other leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, to the point where Morton says she is “black” because she “stands on the right side of the issue, understands oppression and can be sympathetic.” Downing believes a dialogue is necessary, but it can’t be had without real honesty and the exchange of some difficult truths.
“Hope springs eternal, from my perspective,” she says. “There are issues that keep coming up, and we realize we must attend to them. We helped create the systems we have now, and we have to deal with them.”
There are those who believe Morton could best attack the problems from an elected post. His combination of intelligence, faith, fearlessness and willingness to take action make him a prime candidate for public office, they say. Morton demurs, arguing that he can “be more effective” from the pulpit than he could be as a government official. The idea of being a “national preacher,” as Ricky “Mouse” Smith of Wilmington, head of the state NAACP suggests, is another thing all together.
It sounds as if others aren’t buying Morton’s reticence about public office.
State Sen. Margaret Rose Henry calls him “part of the new regime,” declaring that “we are desperately in need of new leadership in government.” She doesn’t hesitate to insist, “We are pissed off.” Is Morton the answer? Councilman Street sees Morton as someone who can replace those who are taking on the fight right now. “I’m excited about the young people stepping forward and stepping up,” Street says.
Smith says he is “teaching [Morton] my trade, which happens to be civil rights and injustice,” with the hope that Morton can advance the cause. “He’s a leader and can carry the torch and take his generation where it wants to go,” Smith says. Smith’s broad-based vision for Morton’s ministry is a more likely outcome than a run for political office. That way, Morton can have direct influence on people with his ability to craft a message that reaches the streets, the boardrooms, the schools and the people in power. He may not be ready to hit the battlefield, as Booker does, but he has the ability to deliver his message to a variety of ears.
“He’s an established leader and is inspiring to people,” Street says. “He has great potential moving forward as a community leader. I think he’s going to be able to tackle a lot of different issues. He’s not afraid in the boardroom, and he’s not afraid in the streets.”
Morton will continue to push and prod. He’ll speak his truth and that of his people, which he believes down to the soles of those fancy shoes. He cannot predict the future, but he knows one thing:
“My task is a tall order, but I think I’m going to die swinging.”