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|Beckwith recalls terrifying late night threat after Morris murder: 'You're next'|
A short time after Frank Morris died as a result of the arson of his shoe shop, two black men were run out of Ferriday because the Klan and sheriff's deputies feared they could identify the men who killed Morris.
One of these black men -- Tee-Wee Kelly -- died in 2000, while the other recalled for The Sentinel this week the harrowing night of December 16, 1964 -- two days after Morris' death -- when an anonymous caller warned him several times, "You're next."
John "Bubba" Beckwith was 22-years-old in 1964, a good friend of Frank Morris and was working at Richardson & Sims Funeral Home. He was born and reared nearby in Gilbert, dreamed as a teenager of owning his own funeral home one day but was forced out of Ferriday 45 years ago never to return.
"Frank Morris worked hard and was a good business man," said Beckwith, who didn't let his brush with the Klan dash his dreams. After being forced out of Ferriday, he made his way to Dallas, Tex., and today, according to son John Beckwith Jr., owns the largest African-American funeral home chain in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex -- Golden Gate Funeral Home -- and he opened a facility in Tallulah, La., in 2002.
Morris' shoe shop was set on fire on Dec. 10, 1964. Asleep in a back room of the shop, Morris was awakened by the sound of breaking glass around 1 or 2 a.m. He confronted two of his attackers in the front of the store who immediately ignited gasoline which had previously been spread inside and outside the building. Morris died from third degree burns at the Concordia Parish Hospital -- now called Riverland -- four days later, on December 14, 1964.
Beckwith, 67, said he arrived in Ferriday to work at the funeral home in August 1963. A short afterward, he met Morris.
"Frank was a good man," said Beckwith. "He liked to talk and carry on."
On the night of the fire, Beckwith said he received a call at the funeral home, where he was living, and was informed that the shoe shop was in flames.
"I didn't go up there," said Beckwith. "The streets were covered with smoke."
But Beckwith was among several friends who visited Morris at the hospital. "He knew who I was but he wasn't able to talk. He was in bad shape."
It had been just a few days before the fire, Beckwith said, that the Klan dropped leaflets in front of the funeral home and in front of the radio station, where on Sundays Morris hosted an hour-long gospel music program.
"I never heard why Frank was killed," said Beckwith. "There were rumors that he was killed because he was involved in Civil Rights, but I never knew that to be true."
After Morris died, the FBI launched an intensive investigation into his death but no arrests were ever made. The case was closed by the summer of 1965, but reopened in 1967 during the bureau's probe of the carbombing murder of Wharlest Jackson in Natchez in February 1967. Both the Morris and Jackson murders are presently being investigated again by the FBI.
"I always heard that two black men were run out of town after the fire," said Leland Boyd of Texas. Boyd was the son of the late Earcel Boyd, a local Klan leader who often visited Morris at his shop. "There were a lot of rumors," he said.
Interviewed after the fire by the FBI, Beckwith said that shortly after Morris died he was alone at the funeral home.
"The phone rang and the caller said, 'You're next.' He said it three times," said Beckwith.
Believing that Morris had been killed by the Klan and aware that the Klan had been on a violent rampage throughout Concordia Parish in 1964, Beckwith was terrified as he hung up the phone.
He raced across the street to the Coast Service Station where a young white man was operating the station that night. The white youth, according to FBI reports, said Beckwith hid for a while in the tire room of the station while holding a .22 caliber pistol that was kept at the station.
The white man, whose identity isn't revealed in redacted FBI documents, was interviewed by the FBI in February 1965 at the Fort Polk, La., military base where the man was assigned to F company, 2nd Training Brigade. He said Beckwith came to the station around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1964.
Both the station attendant and Beckwith told the bureau that they observed a white man snooping around the black neighborhood near the station as Beckwith hid in the tire room. Beckwith described the car the man was driving as a 1958 red and white Ford, while the Coast Service Station attendant described it as a 1956 or 1957 Buick with a red bottom and a light top.
According to FBI reports, Beckwith said the man was tall, heavy set and wearing khaki pants. The service station attendant said the man was a "tall, slender person, rather stooped over." He said the man went to a phone booth on station property but was not sure if he used the phone.
"It was a terrifying night," Beckwith told The Sentinel. "I left the station and went to a neighbor's house for a while and then that morning Prince Albert Broom took me to Gilbert." Broom, who was black and has since died, was a school teacher in Franklin Parish.
Beckwith said funeral home owner A.J. Richardson took him to a bus station where Beckwith bought a ticket to Dallas.
"I don't know why the Klan was after me unless they thought Frank told me who set the fire when I visited him at the hospital," said Beckwith, who said he was acquainted with Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office deputy Frank DeLaughter, a known Klansman now dead and then a suspect in the Morris murder. Beckwith said he never had an encounter with DeLaughter, who was known as "Big Frank" in the black community.
Beckwith said he didn't recognize the voice of the anonymous caller, although DeLaughter was known to make such calls.
Retired FBI agent Ted Gardner, 71, of Fairfax, Va., told The Sentinel that DeLaughter occasionally attempted to disguise his voice and made anonymous calls to the spouses of FBI agents.
"DeLaughter would say, 'We just brought your husband in to the emergency room at the hospital,'" said Gardner.
Father August Thompson of Pineville, who ministered in Ferriday during the 1960s, said DeLaughter once called FBI agent Don McGorty's wife and said "your husband is going to be killed." McGorty was among the agents who investigated the Morris murder in 1964 and 1965.
The late Tommy Lee Jones, a Klansman from Natchez who was also a suspect in the Morris murder, admitted to FBI agents in 1967 that he made several anonymous phone calls to Mayor John Nosser of Natchez and others, according to FBI documents. Nosser's home on Linton Avenue was heavily damaged by a bomb thrown into his front lawn on September 25, 1964, three months before Morris was murdered.
Jones denied tossing the explosive into Nosser's yard, but said he had made the threatening calls to Nosser and others, including the late Troyce Guice, who owned a car dealership in Concordia, to compel them to fire any black people who were employed by them.
Another black man run out of Ferriday at the same time as John Beckwith was the late Junios "Tee-Wee" Kelly Jr. Forty-one years old in 1964, Kelly witnessed the arson, according to his son, Leonard Kelly, who said DeLaughter and deputy Bill Ogden later forced his father out of town.
In fact, several black Ferriday residents told The Sentinel that stories of harassment of Kelly after the fire were well known. They also said that Kelly, who was a truck driver hauling pulpwood, was known about town for walking the streets late at night going from lounge to lounge.
Leonard Kelly, then 19 and now 64, told The Sentinel in 2007 that on two occasions not long after the arson someone in a car passing by the corner of Carolina and Third fired shots into the Kelly home. He said one shotgun blast blew out a plate glass window.
Kelly said soon afterward deputies DeLaughter and Ogden pulled outside the Kelly home in a police cruiser. He said he watched as his father walked outside to talk to the two deputies who remained in the car.
A short time after that meeting on the street, Leonard Kelly said Tee-Wee "called us all in and told us he had to leave town. He said DeLaughter and Ogden told him the best thing was to leave town or he was going to be killed." Tee-Wee left within hours and never returned to Ferriday, said Leonard Kelly.
He said his father lived the remaining years of his life in Monroe, and died on Dec. 20, 2000, at the age of 77. Shortly before Tee-Wee died, Leonard Kelly said he asked him who killed Frank Morris.
Leonard Kelly said his father told him: "Son, you don't have to look no further than the police department," but didn't specify whether he was referring to town police or parish deputies.
"They were all the same to us," said Kelly.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|