Tue February 15, 2011
NPR News Investigations

Grand Jury Convenes To Investigate 1964 Cold Case

In Concordia Parish, La., a grand jury has begun hearing testimony about an unsolved murder from the civil rights era. That comes less than one month after Stanley Nelson, the editor of the weekly Concordia Sentinel, first named a suspect in the death of Frank Morris, a respected shoe repair owner. And it was Nelson who first reported the grand jury had begun calling witnesses in the 46-year-old case.

Nelson grew up near Morris' shop, on the main street in Ferriday, La., a town just several miles across the Mississippi River from Natchez, Miss. He was 9 years old in December 1964, when Morris' store was set on fire with Morris trapped inside.

But Nelson only learned about Morris four years ago, along with the brutal Ku Klux Klan violence in his own community. That's when the FBI released a list of unsolved murders from the civil rights era.

"I like Frank Morris. I respect him. He was a good man," says Nelson. "I wish that I had known him. Every person that worked for Frank remembers him in such a good way. But Concordia Parish has not lifted a finger for Frank Morris. [It] has not done anything for Frank Morris. But we can now. Justice is important for everybody."

Last month, the newspaper editor wrote the most important story of his career. On the front page, he named a suspect: Leonard Spencer, a former Ku Klux Klansman, who's now 72 and lives in a nearby parish. The sources were Spencer's own family members. They say Spencer and another Klansman, who's now dead, talked about setting the fire that night.

Spencer insists he wasn't involved.

Morris Unified A Community

For years, all that was known about that night came from Morris' own cryptic words on his deathbed. In the hospital, his body covered with burns, he said two men came late at night. One had a gas can. The other had a rifle. They forced him back inside his shop and then set it on fire.

It was unclear whether the men were strangers — or if he knew them but was simply too afraid to say so.

Nelson says Morris was rare for a black business owner in Ferriday.

"He had a business that had both a black and white clientele," says Nelson. "People depended on Frank. It was important back in those days. Most people only had one pair of shoes per family member. And so it was important to be able to make those shoes last as long as possible. So Frank could put a sole on that shoe, he could stitch it. He could keep that family in those shoes. And he took great pride in what he did."

But it was 1964. Congress had just passed the Civil Rights Act. Many whites in that part of the South were angry — and scared — that the federal government was changing their way of racial segregation. In Ferriday, blacks at least had numbers on their side: They outnumbered whites nearly 2 to 1. In Concordia Parish, the numbers were almost even, with the white population just slightly outnumbering the blacks.

The Ku Klux Klan saw Morris as a threat — representing feared integration — because he was respected by some whites.

Black kids like Robert Lee III grew up respecting Morris, too. His father, the Rev. Robert Lee Jr., was a friend of Morris' and one of the few allowed to visit him in the hospital after the fire.

The younger Lee was in the Navy when his mother wrote that Morris had died.

"It was heartbreaking. ... We were overseas, serving in the military for this country and then at home ... this black man who we looked up to was being burned out by whites. Then we're saying, now why in the world am I over here, you know, sworn to the oath of office to die for this country for somebody else and here it is, here's this prominent man, this great man was being burned to death by a bunch of Ku Kluxers who probably couldn't, couldn't even pass the test to go into the military. It pissed a lot of us off, I'm using the word pissed off, because it wasn't right," Lee says.

In Ferriday, on the local radio station among all the white DJs, Morris also had a show. Every Sunday morning, he played gospel music.

When Lee and his brother Willis were in the military and then in Vietnam, Morris would dedicate a song, every Sunday, to their mother. The song, "Waiting For My Child," is about a mother who longs to be reunited for her son who is far away.

Spotlight On A Small Town

A lot of white people also listened to Morris on the radio while growing up, including Glen McGlothin.

Today, McGlothin, who has his own rock 'n' roll cover band, is the mayor of Ferriday — a town known as the birthplace of Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. There are fewer than 4,000 people who live there, and 3 out of 4 residents are African-American. The broader Concordia Parish, which lies along the Mississippi River, is nearly 59 percent white.

From his office filled with music memorabilia, McGlothin says he doesn't fear the attention Ferriday is getting right now as the national media, and even some media around the world, report the new revelations regardng the Frank Morris case. "Anybody around here knows we had a problem then," he says. "It's part of history. It is history. I mean, do we want to rewrite it and act like none of it happened? I can't see that."

The mayor defends Nelson's efforts when people complain that the editor shouldn't be digging up the town's violent past. "My point is this," McGlothin says. "Somebody was murdered. I can't see the problem with finding out who did it. I don't care how long it took. If it was my father, or my brother, I wouldn't care if it took a hundred years, I'd want to find him. So what is the difference, and Mr. Frank's friends and family want to find out who killed him."

Nelson also hears these complaints.

But for the most part, the reaction to his reporting is neutral or positive. The paper hasn't lost any advertising. It's even gained a small number of subscribers. The Morris story is the best detective mystery in town. And people want to know how it turns out.

They've followed the more than 150 stories Nelson has written over the past four years about the Morris case and other Ku Klux Klan violence. Nelson has conducted more than 300 interviews. He says he lost count of the exact number a couple of years ago. He's tracked down witnesses, ex-cops and other law enforcement and family and friends who knew Morris. He's read thousands and thousands of pages of police reports and FBI documents.

But he worries that time is running out. Suspects and witnesses are dying. Nelson notes that last week, on the day the grand jury started hearing testimony, E.L. McDaniel died. McDaniel was a Klansman turned FBI informant who, in the 1960s, pointed federal law enforcement officials to other suspects in the Morris case.

To Nelson, holding Morris' killers accountable is not just about justice for Morris. It's about racial healing — for Concordia Parish and for the nation.

Now the grand jury must decide whether Nelson is right — and if there's enough evidence to indict the man he named as a suspect in Morris' death a little more than 46 years ago. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.