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Black lawmaker quits Vermont legislature citing online racial abuse

Rep. Kiah Morris (D-VT) says "martyrdom" is too high a price for public service.

Online abuse has forced one black woman U.S. representative out of her seat. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Online abuse has forced one black woman U.S. representative out of her seat. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Rep. Kiah Morris (D-VT), a black lawmaker who had served in the Vermont’s House since 2014, announced this week that she is resigning, citing rampant racist online abuse.

She made the announcement to her constituents in the town of Bennington a little over a month after withdrawing her candidacy for re-election.

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Friends, Today, I officially announce my formal resignation from my position as the Vermont State Representative serving the district of Bennington 2-2. When I recently announced my withdrawal from re-election, it was my intention to continue service until completion of the current term which ends in January of 2019. However, this time has proven to be one of significant challenge for my family. My husband is beginning the long physical journey of recovery following extensive open-heart surgery. We face continued harassment and seek legal remedies to the harm endured. I step away now to focus on caring for and supporting my family during this time of transition and ensure our health, safety and well-being are prioritized. I want to thank the many individuals and organizations who continue to stand in solidarity with us, speak out, organize, donate and more as we press on the journey ahead. TEAM KIAH is all of us. Thank you.

A post shared by Kiah Morris (@kmrhapsody) on

Morris and her husband, James Lawton, have been working with local authorities for over two years, to no avail, to end the abuse and threats she claims she and her family receive on social media.

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She said the abuse has ranged from derogatory remarks such as calling her mixed race son a “mongrel,” to outright physical threats.

The family has kept a close record of everything they’ve endured, including an incident in which swastikas were spray painted on trees near their home.

“It was my intention to continue service until completion of the current term which ends in January of 2019. However, this time has proven to be one of significant challenge for my family,” Morris wrote on social media.

Several competing factors motivated Morris’ final decision. Her husband has just begun recovery following open heart surgery this month.  And she told CNN that she no longer wants to cope with “the continued harassment, a legal battle to try to find justice, and dealing with the investigation.”

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She and her family will press forward with an investigation into the online abuse, although they have not been successful in producing enough evidence to press charges so far.

“I step away now to focus on caring for and supporting my family during this time of transition and ensure our health, safety and well-being are prioritized. I want to thank the many individuals and organizations who continue to stand in solidarity with us,” Morris wrote in her Facebook post announcing her resignation.

She also plans to work to find a real solution for online abuse, “ensuring that this won’t happen to other Vermonters,” she said.

“There needs to be a comprehensive response to make sure other people aren’t left feeling helpless or vulnerable and fear for their safety,” she added.

Online harassment is hardly a rare occurrence but women of color find they are particularly vulnerable to this form of bigotry.  Morris says that she is no longer willing to subject herself to this form of “martyrdom” in the name of public service.

“I needed to press the conversation that public service by people of color and other marginalized groups does not have to require martyrdom,” she said.

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“The risk and the dangers are there. It’s part of our national climate. That does not make it acceptable, it should not have to be a norm. It cannot be a norm if we are truly to transform our country.”