Morris Wright: The Salt of the Earth

     "He didn't try to fit events into a preconceived notion
about what had to be occurring, but tried to understand and
explain the strike on its own terms."
     That memory of Morris Wright by a participant in the
historic cannery workers strike at Watsonville, California
provides a fitting epitaph for the veteran labor reporter
who died in Oakland May 18 at the age of 86. Certainly it
would please Morrie who prided himself on both his
professionalism as a journalist as well as his commitment to
the cause of workers fighting for their needs and rights.
But it is also a tribute Morrie had earned in the course of
more than half a century devoted to working class
     Morrie Wright was not a flashy writer -- although he
had a poetic streak which was always there between the lines
and occasionally found its way into the text. His style was
direct, economical and thorough. Whether about a strike of
copper miners in Arizona, the trial of Angela Davis in a
California courtroom, the passing of ILWU leader Harry
Bridges or daily life in revolutionary Cuba, when you got
done reading an article under Morrie's byline, you knew a
lot more than you did before.
     Morrie Wright was no dispassionate observer of events.
He was partisan in the best sense of the term, believing
that working men and women wanted and needed the truth about
all things. And that's what he devoted himself to delivering
to the best of his ability. He didn't always succeed. None
of us do. But when he realized he'd gotten something wrong,
he had no hesitation in admitting it and set out to do
better; not only on points of fact in a news story, but in
the basic propositions of a world outlook as well.
     Morrie came to his partisanship out of his own life
experiences and a questioning mind. He was born January 18,
1908 in the town of Enid in what was then the Oklahoma
Territory and seems to have come by his straight-shooting
style genetically; his mother, according to Morrie's
daughter Carol, was reputed to be "the best shot in the
Oklahoma Territory."
     Raised in Illinois, he attended Carleton College in
Minnesota but left before getting a degree to ride the rails
and hitchhike around the west. During these early depression
years he worked at whatever he could find -- herding cattle
as a cowboy in Montana (and even riding the rodeo circuit
for a while), harvest hand in the alfalfa fields, slinging
hash and chili as a short order cook. He also worked as a
carpenter and spent one summer delivering ice in Chicago.
     Morrie's first encounter with the labor movement came
when he found a job at the McCormick Reaper plant in Chicago
where the Farm Equipment Workers Organizing Committee
(FEWOC) was trying to bring the workers into the fledgling
CIO. Morrie threw himself into the campaign, signing up
workers for the union, writing leaflets and ultimately
becoming editor of the FEWOC newspaper. It was his baptism
in labor journalism.
     In time he would work as writer and editor for The
Union, the newspaper of the Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers,
and The Dispatcher, the International Longshoremen's and
Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) paper.
     Around 1936 Morrie joined the Communist Party,
remaining a member for 20 years. There he met his wife Marie
Moxley with whom he had three children -- Molly, Larry and
Carol. During the McCarthy years, their home in Denver
became something of a "safe house" for party members on the
run. Carol and Larry, who were then young children, remember
those days as a time when they were told not to talk about
the various "visitors" who were staying with them and not to
bring friends home while the "visitors" were there. And when
it came time for these clandestine figures to move on, they
recall, Morrie would back his Willis Jeep into the garage,
the underground party members would lie down on the floor or
the back seat, and the kids would pile on top of them. Then,
gleefully chewing away at some popcorn or sucking popsicles,
they would head off for a "picnic" in the country.
     In 1953, along with a number of other active left-wing
unionists in Denver, Morrie was called before the House
Committee on Un-American Activities. He was not, needless to
say, a friendly witness.
     Ever an internationalist, Morrie was exuberant about
the victory of the Cuban Revolution from the moment of its
victory. In 1969, while working as Assistant Editor of The
Dispatcher, Morrie incurred the wrath of ILWU head Harry
Bridges by traveling to Cuba with the first Venceremos
Brigade. (At the time, Bridges was low-profiling his
radicalism out of concern for losing his base in the union
rank and file.) As a result, Morrie lost his job with The
Dispatcher and left the union shortly thereafter.
     So early in the '70s Morrie, then 66, began a new
career as a left-wing journalist, covering West Coast and
labor news for The Guardian. Those were the years when C‚sar
Ch vez and the farmworkers were making news up and down the
West Coast and Morrie became a familiar figure in the fields
and at the union halls through California's Central Valley.
Morrie also provided The Guardian with incisive week-in,
week-out coverage of the Angela Davis trial. In the 1980s,
Morrie joined Line of March, one of the numerous "party-
building" organizations of the period, and became the labor
editor of its newspaper, Frontline. At the end of the
decade, Morrie was part of the diverse core of activists who
helped launched CrossRoads.
     At the age of 74, Morrie made his first trip to
Nicaragua with the Elders for Survival. He would return to
Nicaragua two more times, the last to cover the election
which resulted in the ouster of the Sandinistas.
     Over the years, Morrie's distinguished firsthand
coverage of critical turning points in the U.S. class
struggle and his participation in the political movements he
wrote about established him as a figure in the great
tradition of other left-wing journalists like John Reed and
Wilfred Burchett. Morrie also provided all of us with a
wonderful example of how to be a political person. He was
modest to a fault, open-minded, direct, full of humor and
extremely generous. He was incapable of rancor, spite or
     And now Morrie Wright is gone. He will be remembered
for the many contributions he made to the cause of labor and
social justice. And for those of us who were privileged to
know him, he will be remembered too as that rare individual
who earned the right to be called -- after the film he
worked on during his years with Mine-Mill -- a human being
who was truly "the salt of the earth." --Irwin Silber
     For those who wish to honor Morris Wright with a
contribution to a cause he held dear, you can send a check
to Alta/U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment, 3181 Mission St. #14, San
Francisco, CA 94110.