Who do you think should manage Ferriday water?|
|Motive for Morris murder still unclear 43 years later|
On the drive from Baton Rouge to Ferriday on Thursday, July 8, 1965, Mel Atcheson, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, said he got "the impression that everyone considered (Ferriday) to be quite dangerous and that everyone was afraid of the Klan."
Just how dangerous? Shortly after arriving, a black minister told him that "when the Klan gets you, stick your finger up so we won't have to look all over the countryside to find your bodies."
Atcheson, and a handful of other young, idealistic northerners, many of whom were unaware of the dangers they faced, were volunteers with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). They were sent to Ferriday to help promote civil rights for blacks.
Their arrival came six months after the murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris, whose death 43 years ago is being looked into again by the FBI. His shoe shop, which was also his home, was set on fire during the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964. Morris died four days later from severe burns suffered in the fire.
In the summer of 1965, neither blacks nor whites were particularly pleased to see the CORE workers because these young people, some well-intentioned and some seeking confrontation, drew the ire of the Klan. The federal government's push for integration and basic rights for blacks in the mid-1960s, coupled with CORE workers organizing locals with a plan to obtain those rights, sent the Klan into a frenzy.
The murder of Morris mystified both blacks and whites in town because the shoe shop owner was universally respected.
Another CORE worker, named Mike, said Morris' death made "the front page of the New York Times." But, he said, "people don't seem to know the motive of it too well."
The comments of these CORE workers provide a revealing snapshot of Ferriday in the summer of 1965 and of the Frank Morris murder. Standard University radio station KZSU sent a number of young people to interview CORE workers in the South at that time, and one interviewer came to Ferriday and recorded conversations with three members of CORE -- Mel Atcheson of Iowa, and two native New Yorkers, one a black man and the other a white man.
All of the CORE workers were in their early 20s. None were identified by name. Mel Atcheson and Mike were identified through other sources.
These interviews are stored in the Stanford University Archives. Syracuse University Law Professor Janis McDonald provided these documents to The Concordia Sentinel.
"Frank Morris was a Negro shoe repairman," said Mike, a white New Yorker. His comments were recorded in a home in a black neighborhood in Ferriday where the CORE workers stayed at night and the home owner stayed at another location.
Mike said Morris "seems to have been involved in some sort of civil rights activity when he was in Detroit. He didn't seem to be too active down here, but in any case about 12 or 1 o'clock some white guys came to his place, spread gasoline over the whole place, and dumped a gallon of gasoline on him."
These men "set the place afire," Mike heard through the grapevine, "and they came in and dumped a gallon of gas on him and they set him on fire, and he went running down the street flaming, and he died...later in the hospital."
Mike's understanding that Morris worked in the civil rights movement was widely rumored in Ferriday in the days following the murder, but Ferriday residents living today have no memory of Morris being involved in the NAACP or any other organization. If Morris was killed by the Klan for this reason, the federal government had clear authority to make a local murder case a federal murder case.
"Given the realistic threats of violent retaliation from members of both the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Natchez and the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana at the time, I suspect that the early civil rights activists very wisely kept their activities secret," says Syracuse University's Janis McDonald. "It remains to be discovered whether Frank Morris participated in this way."
Another key factor that would draw federal intervention was if law enforcement officials were believed to have been involved. It was this suspicion that initially caused the U.S. Department of Justice to put the FBI on the case.
During the bureau's extensive investigation into Morris' murder, a handful of Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office deputies and two "new" Ferriday police officers were of interest to the FBI. The CORE workers said some of the deputies were particularly menacing.
Ferriday Mayor L.W. "Woodie" Davis, however, was trying to keep the peace, said the workers.
The black CORE worker said the mayor worried over the safety of everyone. Two said the workers gave the mayor "ulcers overnight, heart attack overnight." Davis was not "a bad mayor at all," said the civil rights workers, and "would hate" for anyone to be hurt or killed.
Davis said the CORE workers were "trouble" mostly because they didn't understand the dangers they faced nor the dangers the community faced.
"Their presence here upset the Klan," said Davis, who was constantly threatened by Klan members for years. He feared Klan violence would escalate.
Additionally, he said different groups of CORE workers visited Ferriday in the mid-1960s and some attempted to stage events to cause controversy.
"Some of the CORE workers were pretty seasoned, and were trying to cause confrontations," said Davis. "One group tried that once at the Post Office, but the FBI saw what they were up to."
He recalled several "seasoned" CORE workers from Chicago, New Jersey and Oregon.
Concerning town officials, the CORE worker Mel said in 1965, "I think they're trying to run a peaceful town. That is, you know, keep the status quo and so on and they don't want any incidents. And I think that they're willing to accept integration if it comes, but they're not going to help it come. But if it does come, they want it to come without any incidents."
The FBI, according to the 100-plus pages of documents on the Morris' case released through the Freedom of Information Act, spent a great deal of time trying to develop leads on whether Morris was, indeed, openly or secretly involved in civil rights. By all indications he was not.
Even an NAACP representative from New Orleans told FBI officials nine days after the fire that "he had no personal knowledge nor any informaton from NAACP channels that Morris had been active in civil rights..."
James Watkins of Ferriday, who operated a barber shop, said this week he never knew of Morris being involved.
"He was a friend of mine," said Watkins. "I use to cut his hair. Frank was not known to be in civil rights."
The rumors floating through Ferriday in the summer of 1965 that Morris had been to Detroit a few years earlier and was involved in civil rights doesn't ring true with Watkins.
"I only knew him to leave town" on an extended trip once, said Watkins. "He took a Trailways bus to Memphis and that bus got into an accident. Frank got a pretty good settlement out of that."
Watkins recalls that the accident occurred sometime in the 1950s.
He also notes that Morris was so well liked by the black and white communities that it's hard to imagine anyone would want him dead.
"I didn't know he had an enemy," said Watkins.
There was speculation at the time of his murder, however, that Morris' friendly business relationship with the white community, particularly with white women who counted on Morris to keep their families in shoes, drew the ire of some Klan members. These rumors floated after Morris' murder.
Watkins said Morris' first shoe shop in Ferriday was located near Richardson and Sims Funeral Home. Morris, who was from Vidalia, according to Watkins, moved to South Fourth Street, now E.E. Wallace Blvd., in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Watkins said Morris' father, Sullivan Morris, operated a shoe shop in Natchez.
"He was a jolly fellow," said Watkins of Frank Morris. "He was lively. I never saw him down. He was always in good spirits."
|Frank Morris Murder Series|