Who do you think should manage Ferriday water?|
|After 43 years, priest still wonders, 'Why Frank'|
On the morning of Dec. 10, 1964, Father August Thompson visited the Ferriday Post Office, now the site of the Delta Music Museum, to pick up his mail.
This was part of his daily routine.
"When I got to the post office, someone told me Frank was in the hospital," Thompson said.
"Frank" was Frank Morris, a shoe shop owner in Ferriday, who just hours prior to Thompson's visit to the post office, had been severely burned in a fire set by two white men, believed to be members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The men who forced Morris into his store at gunpoint before setting the building on fire have never been arrested. Morris' case is one of several dozen unsolved civil rights era murders.
During the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964, when Morris was attacked, Father Thompson was sleeping.
"I sleep soundly," said Thompson, 81, who now lives in Pineville. "I didn't hear a siren or anything."
When he left the post office, Father Thompson rushed to the Concordia Parish Hospital, where in Room 101 Morris was being attended by medical personnel.
Morris heard Thompson's voice.
"Father, is that you?" Morris asked weakly.
"Yes, Frank," Thompson answered.
"Father," Morris said. "I'm cold."
"I was told that the fire burned all of his sensory glands," said Thompson. "Although he was badly burned, he was cold."
An employee at the Billups service station a half block from Morris' store, heard what sounded like a pistol shot on the night Morris' shop was set on fire. A can of flammable liquid was found outside the building, and inside Morris' shoe shop, where he made and repaired shoes and worked with leather, chemicals were stored.
Suddenly, said the employee, a dark colored, late model sedan pulled out of the ally between the station and the shoe shop, turned left, and sped away toward Vidalia.
The Billups employee told the FBI that seconds later, Morris, in flames, ran into the parking lot frantically calling for help. The employee said Morris "was nude except for the waist band of his underwear and the neck band under his shirt and these were smoldering."
At the hospital, Thompson stayed with Morris for a while. He prayed for him.
Later, the priest told Morris that he was leaving to make a trip to New Orleans.
"You coming back, father?" Morris asked.
Thompson answered: "Yes, Frank, I will be back."
Before Thompson returned, the Rev. Robert Lee Jr. of Clayton went to visit.
"When I heard about it (the fire)," said Lee, 93, "I made a point to see him."
He didn't recognize the man laying in the hospital bed as the Frank Morris he knew.
"I've never seen anybody burned so badly," said Lee. "Only the bottom of his feet weren't burned. He was horrible to look at. He was in no shape to communicate."
He sat with Morris for a short time. No one else was in the room.
After prayer, he prepared to leave, and asked, "Frank, who did this to you?"
"Two white friends," Morris answered.
"He never called the names," Lee said.
When Father Thompson returned to Morris' bedside, Father John Gayer, who has since died, came with him. Thompson was the priest at St. Charles, attended by blacks. Gayer, a white man, was the priest at St. Patrick's in the white part of town.
By this time, Morris was nearing death. Doctors had performed a tracheotomy to enable him to breathe. He couldn't speak.
Only Morris and the two priests were in the room.
"Frank," said Father Thompson, "Father Gayer is here."
Morris' eyes darted around the room. The fire had blinded him.
"I said Frank I'm going to ask you some questions," said Thompson. "I don't remember what the signs were, but it was basically, if the answer is yes, do this with your hand, or if the answer is no, signal this way."
"I started calling out the names of people who may have done this," said Thompson. "But Frank wouldn't respond. He was very afraid. I believe he was afraid that someone else was in the room. Maybe he thought he would get well and that if he talked someone would kill him."
Father Gayer attempted to reassure Morris also. Gayer called out names.
"Frank was not afraid of Father Gayer," said Thompson, "but he still did not respond."
Each time a name was called out, the two priests looked at Morris' hands, which remained still.
They prayed for Morris.
Hours later, Morris died.
It would seem likely that if Morris did not identify his killers to three men he trusted -- a Baptist minister and two Catholic priests -- that he would have told no one else.
Before leaving the hospital room, Father Thompson wanted to record the condition of his friend. He took photos of Morris as the suffering 51-year-old man lay in bed, cold and blind, in excruciating pain. Lee said when he saw Morris that he was naked, unable to withstand the touch of even a thin bed sheet.
"I gave copies of the photos to the FBI," said Thompson.
Haunted by the sight of Morris, Thompson remains mystified as to why anyone would want him dead.
"I never figured that out," said Thompson. "Frank was not a civil rights mover. He ran a shoe shop. Everybody liked Frank."
Morris and Thompson had been friends for several years before the murder. Thompson served at St. Charles from 1962 through 1969. The church was located on the corner of Alabama and 6th Streets. A recreational center was near the church. In 1970, St. Charles was closed and St. Patrick's became the church of both races.
"Frank came to church, but he was not a Catholic," said Thompson. "We were good friends. I'd get my shoes done at Frank's. If Frank went out of town, he'd send me a card."
The 1960s were not a peaceful time in Ferriday, says Thompson.
"The Klan was active," he said. "There were cross burnings, shootings. Once the Klan dropped leaflets out of an airplane."
When Thompson arrived in town in the early 1960s, he said "blacks were not working in any stores except for manual work. No black persons were in elected positions. We finally got a chance to vote and we taught people how to vote."
Thompson got along well with both races, he said, and even visited one well known deputy, a big man, who had a reputation for his meanness.
"I went to visit him in the hospital once," said Thompson. "I always went to the hospital to visit people and pray with them. I did that with this man, too. He couldn't believe it."
In 1964, the year Morris was murdered, the Ku Klux Klan had amassed a major war of retaliation against the Freedom Riders, and the groups that sponsored them, as they moved across the South registering blacks to vote. In Concordia, the Klan held rallies, and there was a large presence from the Mississippi Klan involved here.
In February 1964, two months after Morris' death, one local white minister, Jerry A. Means, took on the Klan in a letter printed on the front page of The Concordia Sentinel.
"I write this statement to call upon the Christian people of our area," wrote Means, "to take with me an open stand of repudiation and denouncement of the Ku Klux Klan and their unlawful and totally unchristian actions and methods of acting," adding, "The only type of society which the KKK desires to preserve is a society of hatred and of the devil himself."
Thompson plans to celebrate his 50th anniversary of priesthood on June 10. He says he will be thinking about Frank Morris at the upcoming event, and is hoping some of his old friends in Ferriday will attend. It is slated for 11 a.m. at the Riverfront Center in Alexandria.
"In fact," he said, "I wrote the Southern Law Poverty Center about two months ago asking them to look at Frank's case. I'm glad to know it's being looked at, that there are people who care about what happened to Frank."
Still, he doesn't understand it.
"Why Frank?" he wonders.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|