On Dec. 10, 1964, a 51-year-old, black shoe-shop owner named Frank Morris was burned alive inside his store in Ferriday, La. Morris miraculously survived severe burns to all of the skin on his body, was hospitalized and lived four more days in agony and morphine-induced delirium before he finally died. On his deathbed, Morris told the FBI how his store was broken into and how the intruders had poured gasoline inside the store. He said there were two white men.
The FBI investigated twice in the 1960s with no conclusion. Today, in Ferriday's Concordia Sentinel, its editor Stanley Nelson reports compelling evidence that Leonard Spencer, an admitted former member of the Ku Klux Klan living in Richland Parish, La., helped set the 1964 fire that killed Frank Morris.
Remarkably, Nelson's witnesses to confessions by Spencer are his former brother-in-law, Bill Frasier, and his son, Boo Spencer. Additionally, Leonard Spencer's ex-wife, Brenda Rhodes, attests to hearing an alleged fellow Klansman and close friend of Spencer confess to working with Spencer to set the shoe shop on fire.
"I'm somewhat encouraged," Nelson told me in a telephone interview. "I think there's evidence to believe that the majority of the white folks would like to see these cases solved, too."
Many of the familiar civil rights era racial murders are stories of retaliation for activism. The victims' names are embedded in our cultural memory of the era's violence: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, Wharlest Jackson, Louis Allen, Herbert Lee, Birdia Keglar and Adlena Hamlett--to name just a few in Mississippi.
But there were other victims, like Frank Morris, who were targeted for reasons that are less overtly political, and perhaps even more insidious. These are stories in which there seem to be an accumulation of hostilities towards a black male that reach an unpredictable breaking point. Three main things animate the hostilities towards this different class of victim, often occurring in combination: their financial success, their willingness to stand up to whites and allegations of their having liaisons, real or perceived, with white women.
Stanley Nelson and I are colleagues in the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, a collaborative, multimedia investigation of the untold stories of unsolved civil rights-era murders in the South. For almost as long as Stanley has been investigating the Frank Morris case, I've been investigating the murder of Clifton Walker, which occurred less than 50 miles away outside Woodville, Miss., on Feb. 28, 1964. Driving home late at night, after work at the International Paper Plant in Natchez, Miss., Walker was ambushed by gunmen who riddled his car with bullets, shattering all the windows and shooting him multiple times in the head. He was 37 years old.
There is no evidence that either Walker or Morris was involved in the NAACP or other civil rights activity at the time they were targeted by the Klan.
The cases also share the distinction of having languished without meaningful attention from law enforcement for decades. State and federal law enforcement probed the Walker investigation for about nine months, but ended it before the year was out. It is now one of 50 some cases still under renewed investigation by the FBI, which in 2006 launched a cold case initiative to revisit civil rights era killings.
Frank Morris had a successful shoe shop that served the entire Ferriday community, black and white. He was therefore financially independent and had regular interactions with white female customers. Unsubstantiated rumors of liaisons with white, female customers circulated. A Klan beating was planned but never carried out. Morris subsequently had a confrontation with a notoriously violent, Klansman sheriff's deputy, in which Morris reportedly insisted he would no longer make free repairs to the lawman's cowboy boots.
Clifton Walker made a good wage at the International Paper Plant and liked to wear nice clothes and drive current model Impala cars. His wife Ruby didn't have to work outside the home. Rumors abound regarding Walker, none substantiated: that he used a "white" bathroom or drinking fountain at the paper plant, that he had multiple liaisons with women, white and black; that there had been an earlier attempt to block the road on him and he muscled past his would-be attackers.
In these stories, we see not just hostility to change and supposed "outside" civil rights influences. Perceived slights, suspicions and jealousies alone could make one a target for murder. There only need be a small number of such victims to create a fully repressive atmosphere.
The FBI's current interest in civil rights era cold cases began in 2006 and was more formally announced in 2007, when it published a list of approximately 100 victims. The cases were not all being re-opened but, according to FBI spokesman Steven Kodak in 2008, they were being evaluated to determine which ones were viable investigations. As of 2008, the FBI was also acting under the mandate of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act, never properly funded, which included requirements for community outreach to encourage local action and annual congressional reporting for accountability. In early August 2010, the FBI revealed it was closing approximately half of the cases it had identified, without prosecutions. In a report to Congress, the Justice Department explained,
In an effort to nonetheless bring some sense of closure to the family members of these victims, the Department [of Justice] is writing letters to the next of kin when found. Pursuant to 68 Fed.Reg.47610-01, excepting certain categories of disclosure from the Privacy Act, the Civil Rights Division has the authority to disclose information about the results of an investigation or case to family members of the victims. Thus, we have made the decision that our notification letters will detail our investigative efforts and our findings. We have also made the decision to have FBI agents hand deliver these letters to the family members.
While FBI reports to families whose cases have been closed are deeply important for their attaining closure, to whatever extent may be possible, more needs to happen to provide opportunities for healing and reconciliation in the communities where these crimes occurred.
Moreover, Nelson's reporting raises questions about both the already closed cases and the remaining open cases--particularly those that won't benefit from the pesky questions of investigative reporters who've taken an interest. Nelson found that two of the people he has identified as witnesses had already contacted the FBI on their own accord. He reports,
Frasier said he told the FBI what he knew about the Morris arson in early summer 2009, while Rhodes said she did the same in early 2010. Once Frasier and Rhodes told the FBI what they knew about the Morris matter, they did not hear from the FBI again until The Sentinel asked the FBI in November 2010 for a comment for this news article. Boo Spencer said he was interviewed by FBI agents for the first time last month, December 2010.
In my experience investigating the Clifton Walker's death, none of the living people of interest who are explicitly mentioned in state and federal documents have reported being re-interviewed by the FBI. As I've reported previously, the congressionally mandated outreach to families has yet to take place as well.
"I really don't know why they didn't follow up," Nelson told me. "Apparently they have in the last month or so." Prior to publishing today, Nelson interviewed Department of Justice officials. "It's a question that we asked, but they declined to answer," he said.
What has been the quality of follow up on cases not currently pursued by journalists?
To the extent that investigations may lead to prosecutions, the FBI and Department of Justice should act quickly and effectively and not leave families and communities wondering whether there is really full intent to do right by these cases.
There have been 24 prosecutions since the mid 1980s for civil rights era murders. Every single court case has sprung out of the reporting of journalists who were there first, telling the stories, keeping them in the public eye, often turning up evidence advancing the government investigations.
This is, of course, the proper function of a free press. The press can, in fact, bring information to light that has no relevance to specific court proceedings but which may be deeply relevant to the understanding of society and of history. At the same time the legal system can, through the power of subpoenas and sworn testimony, produce official records of events not otherwise possible--and mete out justice.
After his first two or three stories on Morris' murder, Nelson received a call from Morris' granddaughter, Rosa Williams, in Las Vegas. "She told me who she was and she said, I wanted to thank you. I've learned more in the last two or three issues of the Sentinel than I've learned in the last 40-something years about what happened to my grandfather."
When I asked Nelson about the willingness he's seen among whites to cooperate with his investigations, I was somewhat surprised at his reply. Though whites in the Mississippi communities where I have been working have given me remarkable help, I have continued to see intense fear and distrust from both whites and blacks, alike, when it comes to approaching the subject of these long neglected crimes.
As a Boston-based outsider, I am certain I have a more limited view of Mississippi communities than Nelson. The progress that is indeed possible requires vigorous, complimentary action by the press and the legal and judicial systems. We don't have time to get this equation wrong. Our country's soul is at stake.
Ben Greenberg is a Boston-based writer and photographer. He is a founding member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project and and on the editorial collective of Dollars & Sense Magazine. His blog is hungryblues.net and he is @minorjive on Twitter.