Meet the man who cycled through Mississippi to protest HB 1523

 Benjamin Morris stands outside a Gulfport hotel on Sunday, May 22, 2016. He is one day away from completing a 500-mile bike ride to protest HB 1523.
REGINA ZILBERMINTS/SUNHERALD Benjamin Morris stands outside a Gulfport hotel on Sunday, May 22, 2016. He is one day away from completing a 500-mile bike ride to protest HB 1523.

GULFPORT -- Amid the shouting -- out loud and in print -- over HB 1523, Benjamin Morris wanted to make sure Gov. Phil Bryant received one specific message.

So the author and Hattiesburg native bicycled from the northern edge of the state to Jackson to hand-deliver to Bryant's office a handwritten letter protesting the measure that has been dubbed by some as a religious-freedom bill and by others as condoning discrimination against LGBTQ people.

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Then he kept going -- all the way to the Coast. He arrived this week.

On his 500-mile trek, he rode through each region of the state. He met with advocates, religious leaders and everyday Mississippians, sometimes in organized events and sometimes over a front-yard fence.

"I felt Mississippians, of all people, have a special responsibility to fight discrimination wherever it's seen," he said. "A lot of folks are fighting (HB 1523) in a lot of different ways. Maybe there is hope."

Morris, an award-winning author of fiction, nonfiction and poetry who has written a history of Hattiesburg, was one of 95 authors with Mississippi ties who signed a statement calling for the law's repeal in the week after it passed. Others included John Grisham, Pulitzer Prize-winner Donna Tartt and National Book award-winner Jasmyn Ward of DeLisle.

The way the statement's author, Katy Simpson Smith, was able to collect the signatures so quickly inspired Morris.

As a person of faith, he wanted to do more.

"What can I do?" he said in the lobby of a hotel in Gulfport. "I can't do everything but I can do something. I wanted to add my voice to the large chorus."

He was also inspired, he said, by James Meredith's civil rights march from Memphis to Jackson in 1966 -- though Meredith wasn't able to finish after he was shot and wounded during the march.

Morris contemplated walking, but practicality won out. He decided to bike.

But on one day of his two-week ride he got a surprise. He happened upon a church in Canton where Meredith's group had stayed.

Morris is religious and tried to attend services of different denominations on his trip. He ended up going to Presbyterian, Episcopal and Unitarian Universalist congregations. In Oxford, a pastor converted a church's regular service into one against the bill. A member of the clergy cycled with him into Jackson.

He also tried to bike through as many regions of the state as possible, doing more of a criss-cross than straight line down Mississippi to meet as many different people as possible.

He said he spoke to people who were against the law, ambivalent about it or unsure. Some hadn't read the bill. Others were irate not just about the content but also about how quickly the measure was passed and signed and how little input they felt they had.

He's aware many Mississippians are in favor of the measure and had the chance to meet few on his journey.

Morris is aware his letter likely won't change Bryant's mind. And after the ride he is going back to his day job, teaching and writing.

"I've said what I've needed to say and delivered the message I needed to deliver," he said. "I can't do much more."

He did want to thank the Mississippians who fed him, helped him and invited him into their homes.

That hospitality to a stranger, hospitality toward anyone, "that's the Mississippi I know," he said.

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