Civil rights lawyer Ed Morgan left mark on Tucson

W. Edward Morgan

Like many Jews, eminent local civil rights lawyer W. Edward “Ed” Morgan, who died in Tucson Sept. 20, 2017, at age 94, deeply valued Jewish learning — but the knowledge that changed his life emerged only in his late 50s, when he first learned from his aging mother that he was Jewish. Raised as an Episcopalian, he began studying Judaism, and soon amassed a personal library of prominent Jewish writings, ultimately becoming a bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El at age 84.

Born Jan. 25, 1923, in New York City, Morgan moved to Tucson in 1935 with his mother, Mae Morgan. Due to a childhood disability, he spent long periods in children’s orthopedic hospitals. He wore leg braces and suffered from respiratory problems. Whether due to Southern Arizona’s climate or medical intervention, after six months, his respiration was normal and he no longer needed braces.

Upon entering Safford Elementary School, he encountered racism for the first time. The school was located across the street from the Morgans’ home, but he and his mother were told it was for Mexican Americans, and the school district tried to steer him toward Mansfeld, a school for Anglos. His mother insisted he stay at Safford, and Morgan gained an insider’s view of discrimination and a lifelong passion for fairness and equality. 

He attended Roskruge Junior High and Tucson High School, graduating from the University of Arizona College of Law in 1945.

As a university student, he risked being ejected from the UA by objecting to segregated dormitories, and trying to organize an interracial dorm off campus.

From the beginning, Morgan’s law practice focused on protecting individual and civil rights. Sometimes working pro bono, he represented people in criminal cases and cases involving public employee rights, laborers and labor unions, immigrant rights, blacklisted individuals, Selective Service draftees, and military personnel. He represented the NAACP when Tucson District 1 (TUSD) integrated the public schools in 1951, and, during the 1960s, as a committed opponent of the death penalty, represented each of the 14 men on Arizona’s death row.

In 1964, he twice went to the South as part of the Mississippi Summer Project, representing African Americans who were fighting for the right to vote.

During that early period, he met Barbara Elfbrandt, who would much later, in 1999, become his second wife.

“My first husband and I came here in 1957,” says Elfbrandt. “We met Ed very shortly after that. I guess you could call us all activists. Every time there was some kind of good cause, I would see Ed. There was a peace march, [part of an effort] to desegregate motels and hotels, and we were all involved.”

In 1961, Elfbrandt was a first-year teacher in Amphitheater School District. As a Quaker, she refused to sign Arizona’s new loyalty oath, which required all public employees to affirm they had never been communists or connected with left-wing organizations.

She and her husband had discussed the revised oath previously with Morgan at activist meetings. “He said it was unconstitutional and he would be willing to take a suit,” she says.

Morgan took the case, Elfbrandt v. Russell, to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in a landmark decision that became his most well-known legal victory. 

In the same year, 1966, Morgan won another Supreme Court case, Westbrook v. Arizona, in which a murder conviction was overturned on the grounds that the defendant, who had waived his constitutional right to assistance of counsel, had never received a hearing to determine his competence.

Following her lawsuit, Elfbrandt left teaching and attended the UA College of Law, graduating in 1971. She and her husband worked with Morgan on other civil rights issues, including a free draft counseling service they organized from his office during the Vietnam era.

“His practice was quite extraordinary,” says Elfbrandt. “He was active before there were such things as legal aid and a public defender’s office. His office was almost like a public defender’s office. When he came here, Tucson had only 40,000 people. He knew everybody on all levels of society. He learned Spanish, and had a lot of clients from all walks of life. His whole practice was based on the principle of justice, and he would pay almost any price for that.” 

In 1976, Morgan became city magistrate, serving until 1978, and Elfbrandt and fellow lawyer Neil Miller took over his law practice. Morgan later became a faculty member and chair of the faculty of Antioch Law School, Washington, D.C., then practiced immigration law after the college closed. He also served as an Assistant Attorney General for Arizona in the civil rights division.

In the course of his career, he was honored by many civic and civil rights organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild, the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, the Jefferson Awards Foundation, The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, and a lifetime achievement award from the UA law school in 2015.

Morgan returned to Tucson in 1992, some 20 years after his mother had shared with him the fact that he was born a Jew. During that time, he had studied many Jewish authors and texts, and finally made the decision to return to his roots. His commitment to the Episcopal church had been extensive. He was a vestryman at Tucson’s St. Michael and All Angels for many years.

“He was a very fine person,” says Tony Tselentis, who served with Morgan on the vestry at St. Michael’s. The congregation wished Morgan well when he embraced Judaism, he remembers. “I was happy for him, because he was so happy.”

It was a time of personal changes for Morgan, as he became increasingly absorbed in his Judaic studies. He and Elfbrandt, widowed since 1982, reconnected, and eventually married in 1999.  Morgan and his first wife, Eve, had separated in 1974; she died in 1994.

Elfbrandt, still a Quaker, supported Morgan’s exploration of Judaism. “Ed was quite an intellectual,” she says. “I think that Judaism was part of his heritage — I also think it was an intellectual challenge. I think that aspect of it appealed to him.”

He knew and admired the late Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum, formerly of Temple Emanu-El, and became a member of the congregation, entering into preparation for his bar mitzvah with characteristic zeal.

“Ed was kind of bigger than life,” says John Peck, a former senior vice president of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. His decades-long friendship with Morgan began when Peck was 18. “He was my draft counselor,” he says. “He was one of those figures in your life that’s ineradicable. He’s just there. He was hugely intelligent; highly ebullient – almost an Orson Welles character. He was fascinated by everything, and intensely loyal.”

Peck says he wasn’t surprised by Morgan’s late-life return to Judaism. “Ed was always a very thoughtful, questioning man,” he says. “He took things seriously. He had a great sense of humor, but something as fundamental and core as spiritual belief is something he would research and think about a lot.”

In his 80s, Morgan approached Hebrew and many other bar mitzvah preparation classes with enthusiasm, despite having suffered a minor stroke, which Elfbrandt says left him with some speech and swallowing impairment.

“He was a really inspiring guy. We met at Temple and both went to Torah study together,” says Temple Emanu-El member Andy Iventosch, who became a bar mitzvah in 2002. “He was very well-studied; he knew art, culture and literature. When he led Torah study, he would come in with a box of books and his dog, Pepper. His focus was the poor widow, orphan and stranger. It was absolutely consistent with who he was. He was really an activist in Tucson, and the generosity he extended to people who needed his help extended to everyday life. He lived the whole life.” 

Morgan suffered a major stroke in 2006. Afterward, Elfbrandt says, “I’d take him over to the temple once in a while. He was faithful to Judaism till he died.”

Morgan is survived by his children, Katharine Gregg Morgan of Callahan, Florida; Bruce Morgan and Aaron Desmond Morgan of Tucson; and Paul Morgan of Kuna, Idaho; and his second wife, Barbara Elfbrandt.

Arrangements were made by Adair Funeral Homes, Dodge Chapel and Temple Emanu-El. Donations may be made to Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona, Samaritans, Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, or Scholarship Fund for the A Mountain Community Association. There will be a celebration of Morgan’s life Saturday, Nov. 25, 2-4 p.m. at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, 1201 E. Speedway Blvd.

Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.