Margaret E. Morton: 1924 – March 10, 2012

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By Mary Witkowski

In these days of analyzing confusing elections and examining consequential figures in our past, people who cleared a path for our future stand out.  Margaret E. Morton had an extraordinary career in Connecticut politics that was sparked by her role in a Bridgeport neighborhood issue.  In the early 1970’s, she and other East End residents had asked the city to install a stop sign at the site of frequent accidents. Their request was rejected by the city, symptomatic of a growing chasm between white city leaders and East End’s black residents.The East Enders struck back, organizing to support black candidates for elected office. Margaret Morton ran as the Democratic Party’s candidate for a vacant seat in the state House of Representatives in 1972.  Her victory catapulted Morton into Connecticut history: she was the first African-American woman elected to the General Assembly.

In 1980, Margaret Morton decided to run for the state Senate after the incumbent, a well-known attorney, told her he wouldn’t seek re-election.  Margaret Morton later learned that the attorney intended to run and the Democratic Party machinery wanted her to withdraw her name for consideration.  “I was told, not asked, to step aside,” she said.

In her interpersonal dealings, Margaret Morton’s soft-spoken and gracious demeanor was in stark contrast to the wise-cracking, cigar chomping political operatives in Bridgeport.  Margaret Morton’s rivals may have underestimated her tenacity and organizational skills.  Among her supporters: newly deputized registrars of voters that enlisted people to register as voters affiliated with the Democratic Party.[1]  The voter registration drive paid off.  Margaret Morton beat the attorney by eight votes in a primary election, clearing the way for her to become the first African-American woman in Connecticut’s state Senate.  She subsequently rose to the rank of Deputy President Pro Tempore, a leadership role she held until she retired from the General Assembly in 1992.[2]

During her tenure, Margaret Morton championed causes to help impoverished people in the state’s urban areas.  She supported the adoption of a state income tax, for instance.  “People continue to talk about cutting spending. When you cut spending in the government you’re cutting people, which in return are services to people,” she said.[3]   In the Assembly, Morton chaired the committee on Human Rights and Opportunities and rose to the rank of Assistant House Majority Leader.  She oversaw the appointment of two African American judges during her years in office.  In total, she served four terms as a State Representative and six terms as a State Senator.

Margaret Morton was born in 1924 in Pocahontas, Virginia, to Aaron and Leona (Hurt) Woods.  She was raised in Bluefield, West Virginia and graduated from high school summa cum laude. [4]  After marrying James Morton in 1941, the couple moved to Bridgeport, then a vibrant manufacturing center.

The Mortons, who had four children, established and ran Morton’s Mortuary funeral home in Bridgeport’s East End.  All throughout her political career, she never forgot her roots.   Upon being named Deputy President Pro Tempore,  Morton made the following Statement:  My grandfather was the child of the master in the slaves and he yearned for education, he longed for education.  He went as far as he could go in school and he taught.  One thing he instilled in his children and he sent them all to normal school in those days which allowed them to become whatever they wanted to become and some were teachers and others entered into other professions. But I think that man is happy today, looking down to see his granddaughter in this position.  And my mother is happy and all of you know my mother and you know all about my mother.  I know she is happy today.  And you know what else?  I think she believes all the nice things these nice guys said about me.  Because she really believed in me. [5] Margaret Morton died March 10, 2012.  Fulfilling her grandfather’s dream, Margaret Morton had become a role model for future generations.  On the day that she would have turned 88, Bridgeport City Hall’s annex was renamed in her honor at a ceremony befitting a trailblazer.

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1984/06/24/flip-side-of-voter-drives-can-be-polarized-parties/bb514a93-8dbc-4856-8429-5e307f06ebff/

[2] http://www.ct.gov/sots/lib/sots/registermanual/2012dedicationweb.pdf

 [3] “Weicker Gets His Income Tax, But Citizens Fight It,” The Christian Science Monitor,  08 Oct 1991.

[4] http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/ctpost/obituary.aspx?pid=156477743

[5] Senate Session Transcript 02/14/90 [http://search.cga.state.ct.us/dtsearch.asp?cmd=getdoc&DocId=7395&Index=I%3A%5Czindex%5C1990&HitCount=0&hits=&hc=0&req=&Item=425]

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About Author

Mary K. Witkowski is the former Bridgeport City Historian and the Department Head of the Bridgeport History Center, Emeritus. She is the author of Bridgeport at Work, and the co-author with Bruce Williams of Bridgeport on the Sound. Mary has had a newspaper column in the Bridgeport News, a blog for the Connecticut Post, and a weekly spot on WICC. She continues to be involved in many community based activities and initiatives on local history and historic preservation.

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