Boise & Garden City

Descendant of civil rights heroes to speak in Boise about modern slavery

Kenneth Morris Jr. has a background well-suited to his mission to end human trafficking and modern-day servitude.

Two of his famous ancestors, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, were born slaves and believed education was the key for the success of former slaves. Morris’ grandmother, Nettie Hancock Washington, was the granddaughter of Washington, while his grandfather, Dr. Frederick Douglass III, was the great-grandson of Douglass.

Morris, president of the Atlanta-based Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, will be in Boise on Tuesday to deliver the keynote speech during “The Right to Dream” program sponsored by the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights. The presentation, which includes a theater performance recreating a student’s coming of age as an African American in Mississippi during the 1950s and ’60s, will take place from 8 to 9:30 p.m. at the Morrison Center.

Tickets are $9.50. Tickets for a pre-event dinner with Morris are $65.

Morris was inspired by a National Geographic cover story, “21st Century Slaves,” that detailed how people were still being enslaved in the modern world.

“I thought, like many people — this was back in 2005 when I read it — that slavery had ended. I had heard about sex trafficking in faraway places like Southeast Asia but I never really equated that to sex slavery,” Morris said during a recent phone interview with the Statesman. “That article opened my eyes to the fact that when you really boil that base element, the exploitation today through sex slavery, it looks a lot like historic slavery.”

It’s hard to put a figure to the extent of modern-day slavery. The Walk Free Foundation, a group that attempts to track global slavery, suggests there could be as many as 35 million people enslaved worldwide. But its methodology has been criticized. Morris said he’s seen estimates range as low as 12 million and as high as 100 million.

Not even Idaho is immune. Two young women were lured from the Boise Towne Square mall in 2011 by a man posing as a modeling executive searching for new talent. The man’s real interest was to have them work as prostitutes, they told federal investigators.

One of the women was rescued after a a clerk at a hotel near Portland International Airport became suspicious that prostitution activities were taking place in one of the rooms. Taquarius “Cameron” Ford , 36, and Konia “Laney” Prinster, 27, have pleaded not guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking and sex trafficking by force. They are scheduled to go to trial June 22 in Portland.

The Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives focuses its efforts on young people in poor, underserved communities who are likely to become involved in sex trafficking. The charity tries to build them up and educate them on ways to prevent them from becoming victims or perpetrators of sex trafficking, Morris said.

Morris and others began going into schools to speak to children who were familiar with Martin Luther King Jr. but who weren’t aware of Douglass and Washington.

“We knew we could inspire young people with stories of my ancestors, because most of our kids know about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, but hardly any of them know that Frederick Douglass was the father of the civil rights movement,” Morris said. “I could go in there and really make history come alive for them by talking with them about the importance of education and how Frederick Douglass used to trade bread for reading lessons even though he was hungry all the time.”

Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818. He escaped 20 years later and eventually settled in Rochester, N.Y. He became one of the most powerful orators of his time and was an abolitionist, journalist and civil rights leader.

Washington, also born into slavery in Virginia in 1856, was the most prominent African-American leader of his time. Through his work at the Tuskegee Institute, Washington pushed for black advancement through education and business opportunities, rather than directly challenging segregation and voter inequality in the Jim Crow South.

Morris’ organization for now focuses on getting its curriculum approved for schools in New York and elsewhere.

It is important that children learn about such issues early, he said, so they are aware of the problem and may avoid becoming victims.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell