Preacher tried to change the hearts of Klansmen
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, June 14th, 2007 @ 8:33 am
In February 1964, eight weeks after the death of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris, the Rev. Jerry Means did something few people in Ferriday dared to do.
He publicly asked "Christian people of our area" to repudiate the Ku Klux Klan. In taking a stand, he said he also had to preach to some members of his own congregation who were Klan members.
Although the 77-year-old preacher doesn't know who killed Frank Morris, he says those tense days in Ferriday were a time of escalated hate and fear. He doesn't know why Morris was targeted or even if the Klan is responsible.
The FBI investigated the arson of Morris' shoe shop on Dec. 10, 1964. Morris died four days later. No arrests have ever been made, but FBI documents indicate that Klansmen were considered the prime suspects as well as certain members of law enforcement.
Recently, the FBI reopened the Morris murder investigation and may investigate others dating back to the civil rights era.
"I'm glad they're (FBI) opening it up again," said Means. "I hate for these things to brought back up, but I hope this will be a good thing."
Means is now a resident of Ida in northwestern Louisiana. The town is located halfway between Shreveport and Texarkana, where I-49 construction is presently underway. Means "gave up" his church in January due to his wife's illness.
Several events led up to Morris' murder and Means' repudiation of the Klan.
Morris' murder came after Freedom Summer in Mississippi, when the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) sent about 1,000 young people, most of whom were white and from the North, who volunteered to help promote civil rights for blacks. COFO was made up of the NAACP, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC). During the 1960s, CORE workers also moved into Ferriday.
In Mississippi, the COFO effort met violent statewide resistance led by the Klan, many politicians and certain members of law enforcement. On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were abducted and killed by Klansmen, with the aide of law enforcement, outside Philadelphia, MS. It was during a search for their bodies that officials found the bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charlie Eddie Moore, both 19-years-old. They were killed a few weeks earlier in west Mississippi on May 2, 1964.
One of the men accused of kidnapping and killing those two men -- James Ford Seale -- is now on trial in Jackson, MS. Seale worked as a pilot in Concordia and a policeman in Vidalia during the 1970s.
By the end of 1964, following that bloody spring and summer in Mississippi, Morris was awakened by the sound of breaking glass in the front of his shoe shop, which was also his home. He lived in a room in the back.
He was then attacked by two white men, one of whom held a gun on Morris and forced him back to his room, while the other struck a match and started the fire that quickly spread. An explosion also rocked the building. Morris died from his severe burns four days later.
Just a few hours after the arson of Morris' shop, a world away in Oslo, Norway, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the Civil Rights movement, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. King was known to keep up on a daily basis with the violence that followed the movement, but it is not known if he had been informed of the arson of Morris' shop before his speech. In that speech, he noted the numerous church bombings in Mississippi.
COFO officials in New Orleans did know about the arson of Morris' shop within hours, however, and former Ferriday Mayor L.W. "Woodie" Davis believes he knows the reason an FBI agent was at Morris' shoe shop before the flames were put out.
"That's the first FBI agent I ever saw in Ferriday," Davis said. "I believe Frank's life had been threatened beforehand and I think Frank or someone may have called the FBI."
Morris' grandson, Nathaniel Morris, told The Sentinel recently that his grandfather knew his life was in danger a few hours before the fire.
"I wish Frank would have called me," said Davis. "We would have protected him that night."
Davis said the FBI never once discussed the case with him.
"What I've learned about Frank's death I've read in the paper during the last few weeks," he said.
Morris' death may have been the last civil rights-related murder in 1964.
Klan recruitment efforts to fight integration heightened during this period and in Concordia it was no different. It was against this growing tide of hate and violence that led Means to write a public statement against the Klan in the Feb. 4, 1965, issue of The Concordia Sentinel.
"I received a number of calls, many thanking me for writing the letter," said Means, "and for taking a stand. There were many people who wished that they could do something."
But Means said he felt as if he was safer than most.
"I lived in a parsonage that belongs to the church and a good number of the congregation were Klan members," he said. "Some were very strong people. I didn't figure they would fire bomb the house they owned."
But he knew the Klan's capabilities.
"I did move my son's crib from the front bedroom wall to the back wall," he said.
From 1963 through 1968, Means headed the Concordia Parish Ministerial Alliance. In addition to trying to "love the hate" out of the Klan, Means said much work was to be done in fighting a strong criminal element in the parish where gambling and prostitution were unchallenged.
"We are so hard to change," Means said. At church, he said he "never preached segregation nor integration. I preached respect and honor and to give every man a chance."
What also inspired him to write the letter was the Klan's regular distribution of pamphlets with statements damaging to the reputations of both men and women.
Wrote one woman in the same Feb. 4, 1965, issue of The Sentinel: "Jesus said He didn't come to save the righteous but to bring sinners to repentance. That means all races, colors and creeds. Not just you and your brother. There is nothing done in darkness that will not be brought into the light in due time."
Means called the pamphlets "smut sheets. That's all they were. Hateful."
"They were printed in Waterproof and thrown in driveways," said Means. Klan influences from Franklin and Tensas parishes, as well as Adams County, were felt in Concordia.
He recalled the arson of one restaurant in Ferriday because of an allegation made against a waitress there.
The Klan, he said, included many men who were "mean and strong. I remember one who was as mean as a hornet. One man was buried in his Klan clothing."
He believes that there may be witnesses still living who know what happened to Frank Morris 43 years ago.
"Some know," he said.
He says what he wrote back in 1964 still holds true today -- those who hide under the "cloak of darkness" are nothing more "than the spirit of the antichrist."