Husband and wife Morial and Miller have made history
Ask Marc Morial about the time he served two terms as New Orleans mayor and he will give you a deep history of the city’s politics and civics. Ask him about celebrating his 20-year tenure as president and CEO of the National Urban League and he can detail his role as a passionate leader of the civil rights organization. But if you want to see his beaming smile, ask him about the achievements of his wife, journalist Michelle Miller.
Miller, current co-host of CBS Saturday Morning, released her New York Times best-selling memoir (in collaboration with writer Rosemarie Robotham) in March: Belonging: A Daughter’s Search for Identity Through Love and Loss.
“My wife is an incredible writer and storyteller,” Morial says. “I watched her write that book and pour everything she had into it. I’m lucky that I caught on for the ride.”
That ride began in New Orleans, where Miller and Morial met. While Miller was working as a reporter and anchor at WWL-TV, 36-year-old Morial became the city’s youngest-ever elected mayor.
They married at the Crescent City’s iconic St. Louis Cathedral in 1999. In many ways, the couple became the face of the city.
Morial’s first mayoral term began in 1994, eight years after his father held the same job. Ernest “Dutch” Morial was elected in 1977 and served until 1986 as the city’s first Black mayor. The elder Morial was a civil rights activist who fought to dismantle the ingrained segregation in New Orleans institutions and tried to end police brutality. He was married to Sybil Haydel Morial, another civil rights activist, who would serve as a dean at Xavier University.
While the Morial family was establishing itself as a political dynasty in New Orleans, Miller’s life began in Los Angeles.
“Only hours after I squinted up at my mother’s face in the delivery room, she was gone,” Miller wrote in Belonging. “I had gulped my first mouthful of air at daybreak on a balmy Thursday in Los Angeles, at the end of a historically turbulent year . That afternoon, after holding her light-skinned infant in milk-colored arms, the woman in whose body I was made handed me to my Black father and walked out of the hospital. I have often wondered if she had second thoughts as she left me squalling in the nursery.”
The parents of Miller’s biological mother were immigrants of Mexican descent and would not accept Miller because of her Black heritage.
“And so here is a woman who is a Latina whose family is first-generation immigrants who felt the need to discriminate based on the fact they were trying to ascend into ‘The American Dream,’ and the American Dream looked a certain way to them. That was really eye-opening,” Miller said in an interview with WBGO in Newark.
Miller’s father played a significant role in encouraging his daughter to search for her mother. Dr. Ross Miller was a trauma surgeon as well as the first Black councilman to serve in the city of Compton. He was the first physician to attend to Robert F. Kennedy at the site of his assassination in 1968. On Dr. Miller’s deathbed, he told his daughter to “go and find your mother.”
Miller did locate her mother: “Laura Hernandez,” the pseudonym used in Belonging. Although they have met for discussions, Hernandez still refuses to publicly acknowledge Miller. “I thought, once she had met me, she would slowly begin to change her mind about having a relationship with me,” Miller says. They have not been in touch since the book was published.
In her memoir, Miller makes deep connections between her “family secret” and the social unrest that she continues to cover as a journalist. No stranger to covering difficult stories, she has reported on the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, the killings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, the sexual assault cases of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, and many more. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 inspired her to integrate her personal story into her news coverage, she says.
“The first time I saw the agonizing video of Floyd’s death, I was alone in the living room in [her home in] South Orange, screaming at the television screen,” she wrote. “‘Get off him!’ I yelled, jumping to my feet, my heart hammering inside my chest, my hands beseeching the air. ‘Get your knee off his neck!’”
Miller’s “Witnessing History” segment ran on June 6, 2020. The piece was a retrospective of her social justice coverage. For the first time as a reporter, she opened up about her mother: “I was born to a father and grandmother who adored me and a mother who, to this day, does not acknowledge my existence.”
She says, “I grew up in an age when journalists were taught that they must be objective. But what does that mean? I understand fairness. I understand accuracy. I understand truth, and I understand bias … Our experiences have an impact on how we see things. Five of us from five different walks of life could be experiencing the same thing at the same time and see entirely different things … We’re professionals, but certainly we are also human beings.”
Her husband says the book articulated the challenges of Miller’s life, ones he had hoped she would write about at some point.
“I told Michelle that she has reinvented herself,” he says, “and that it’s as spectacular as I knew it would be.”
After Morial served two terms as mayor, he was tapped in 2003 to become president and CEO of the National Urban League.
When Miller and Morial moved north, they initially lived in Park Slope for two years, “but when it was time for us to figure out the buying of a home, we were just priced out in New York City all around,” Miller says. They moved to Maplewood in 2005.
“If you recall August 29, 2005, a little thing called Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and our property was still there,” Miller says. “Thankfully, our house closed the week of Katrina.”
“It was devastating to us,” Morial recalls. “Our [New Orleans] home was damaged, and we had to go down and move all of our things out. My mother was displaced. I have two sisters who were displaced. We had friends who died. And the response to it made me absolutely livid. Just beyond livid because of the response across the board and then the way in which there were people who wanted to completely shrink the city during the recovery phase and basically displace people and bulldoze their homes.”
Miller credits their Maplewood neighbors for the close bond she felt in the community.
“When your children are small, people need each other more. You live and breathe in a community in a different way than you do when [your children] become teenagers,” she says. Their 21-year-old son, Mason, and their 18-year-old daughter, Margeaux, were raised in the two towns. In 2015 the family moved to their current South Orange home.
Previous to his marriage to Miller, Morial had a daughter, Kemah Dennis-Morial West.
When asked about his 20-year tenure as the National Urban League’s chief executive, Morial says, “I’m just getting started.”
In an MSNBC interview discussing the past two decades, he said, “It has been a roller-coaster ride for the nation and a roller-coaster ride on issues of racial justice. We took a proud organization that was more in the 20th century and rebuilt it, rebranded it, repositioned it.”
Although he is decades removed from New Orleans, he views his policy work as mayor to be directly connected to the current state of social justice.
“Police reform was a component to public safety and quality of life,” he says. “In many respects, we were way ahead of our time [in New Orleans]. We did community policing. We had a zero-tolerance policy for brutality and corruption. We invested in training. We invested in increased pay. We built a far better investigatory apparatus to try to close cases and follow up.
“What I preach now to mayors is comprehensiveness. You can’t just do policing; you have to do the other investments.”
Although Morial and Miller work in different fields, their attention to social justice bonds them deeply.
“I think it’s so troubling now that these problems are persistent [and] that we have the return of gun violence and that trust in police seems to be at a low,” Morial says.
His hometown remains part of Morial’s life even though he has lived in Maplewood and South Orange for a long time now: “I tell people that today New Orleans remains my home and the New York area remains my home. New Orleans will always be my home. My friends, my family and my legacy are in New Orleans.”
“Michelle and I have built new chapters in our lives.”
Donny Levit is a former resident of New Orleans and lived in the city while Marc Morial served as mayor. He also fondly remembers watching Michelle Miller’s reporting on WWL.