William McCutchan Morrison was born November 10, 1867, near Lexington, Virginia, into a deeply religious family. As a young man, he was reluctant to follow family custom, once remarking, “for me to preach is for me to be a missionary and I don’t want to be a missionary.” He enrolled at Washington and Lee University at the age of sixteen, and graduated in 1887. The death of his father led Morrison to reconsider his commitment to the church, and he eventually did volunteer for mission work. He soon found his way to Luebo, a town in the Congo where he would live for most of the remainder of his life.
Morrison compiled an impressive dictionary of the local Baluba language, as well as a condensed translation of the Bible, but he is best remembered for his role in the Congo reform movement. Soon after his arrival, Morrison had learned to his horror about the brutal conditions of life under Leopold’s rule. Leopold’s colonial police force, known as the Force Publique, forced Congolese people to collect the rubber from which Leopold profited. Often, the Force Publique tortured and mutilated villagers to terrify them into obedience. This despite Leopold’s claim that the Congo Free State was a humanitarian enterprise. Morrison decided to commit himself to exposing this hypocrisy and drawing international attention.
Morrison gained a reputation as the most aggressive advocate for human rights in the Congo. He rarely left Africa during the last twenty years of his life, and when he did, he devoted much of his time to giving speeches (including one before the British Parliament) aimed at raising awareness and drumming up support for reform. As on-the-ground witnesses, Morrison and his colleague, William Sheppard, were truly the eyes and ears of the movement.