1964 death of Frank Morris on FBI list
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, May 24th, 2007 @ 2:23 pm
The 1964 death of Ferriday shoe store owner Frank Morris is one of dozens of unsolved Civil Rights era cases the U.S. Department of Justice says it may review further.
The Justice Department announced this week that it and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are partnering with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Urban League "to investigate several aging unsolved violent crimes from the Civil Rights era."
On Dec. 11, 1964, The Concordia Sentinel reported: "Fire broke out about 2 o'clock Thursday morning, Dec. 10 in a shoe shop located on 4th street in Ferriday."
In a three-paragraph story, the paper noted that owner Frank Morris was in critical condition from burns, his store completely demolished and that town officials and State Fire Marshall were investigating, according to Mayor L.W. Davis.
Morris, 51, died on Dec. 14, 1964.
Penny Weaver with the Southern Poverty Law Center told The Sentinel this morning (Wednesday) that the Morris case is one of many that may be investigated further by the Department of Justice, although there is no guarantee. The center forwarded The Sentinel details on Morris' death compiled from FBI reports released through the Freedom of Information Act.
"On Dec. 10, 1964, two white males seriously burned and killed Frank Morris, a black male, in Ferriday, Louisiana," says the report compiled by the Center, and based on its interpretation of the known facts. "At about 2 a.m., the suspects broke into Morris' shoe repair store. Morris stayed in adjoining living quarters of the store and heard the two men break a window glass.
According to Morris, upon investigating the noise, he was forced back inside his room by one of the men with a shotgun. The suspects proceeded to pour flammable liquid in and around the store building, lit a match, and set the establishment on fire. As a result, Morris received third-degree burns all over his body and was admitted under critical condition at Concordia Parish Hospital. A tracheotomy was performed to help Morris breathe. But Morris, 51, died on December 14."
The Center noted that there were no suspects in the case, adding that "Morris was well respected by both the black and white communities because he served most of the town at his store. Morris also had his own radio show on station KFNV. His show consisted of religious music, guest preachers, yet no civil rights overtone."
U.S. Assist. Atty. Gen. Burke Marshall, who worked in the Civil Rights Division in 1964 assigned the FBI Division of News Orleans to investigate Morris' death.
Several conflicting stories from several witnesses left confusing details and offered many unproved allegations. FBI agents arrived in Ferriday shortly after the fire and interviewed Morris three different times as he lay dying in his hospital bed at the Concordia Parish Hospital.
FBI agents reportedly learned in the first interview that Morris, who was heavily sedated at the time, "vaguely recognized" the two suspects, said they were from Ferriday and thought they "might work in Natchez." In the second interview, Morris said the men had been customers at his store before. In a final interview before Morris' death, he provided agents with a few more details.
He described the two men as 30-35 years of age, "relatively small, yet bigger than him. Both individual wore khakis. He believed the youngest man poured gas around the building."
The FBI reportedly interviewed doctors, nurses, hospital staff, city officials, parish officials and relatives of Morris.
Morris lived with one employee and his 11-year-old grandson in a "small house behind the store." The other two individuals were not injured in the fire.
A number of possible motives were suggested by sources interviewed, many conflicting, some highly sensational and others intriguing.
A severed finger indicating "a black male" source was reportedly found 20 feet from the burned shoe store, but the "doctor in charge of Morris' health concluded that there were no other injuries to Morris other than the third-degree burns all over his body. No official documents stated that the appendage belonged to Morris."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, AL, was founded in 1971 and has filed lawsuits against alleged white supremacists and tracks hate groups.
To assist with the FBI's review of unresolved civil rights era murders, the Center provided the Justice Department Civil Rights Unit with information about the deaths of dozens of people who may have been victims of racially motivated killings.
In a letter accompanying the files, Center President Richard Cohen asked the FBI to use its "considerable investigatory resources to uncover more information about these cases."