Granddaughter, Lewis view Morris murder
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, June 28th, 2007 @ 9:45 am
Last week, as Rosa Williams waited to see her doctor at his office in Las Vegas, she read an article in this newspaper about her grandfather, Frank Morris, who was murdered at his shoe shop in Ferriday in 1964.
She has been uplifted emotionally during the past weeks over the comments of a number of former and current Ferriday residents, both black and white, who expressed fond memories of Morris.
The recollections of Pat Davis Smith were especially moving, said Rosa. Smith recalled that as a little girl she often visited Morris' store where she watched him work, played on the shoe shine stand and enjoyed an occasional gift of cookies.
Smith was describing the man Rosa Williams knew as "Papa Frank" until at the age of 12 when her life and that of her brother, Poncho, who lived with Morris in the shoe shop, took a dramatic turn. On Dec. 10, 1964, one white man held a shotgun on Morris in the early morning darkness and another torched his shoe shop. Morris was severely burned in the fire and died four days later.
The FBI is now reinvestigating his murder, one of dozens of unsolved cases from the civil rights era.
"I never realized how special my granddaddy was to so many people," Rosa said. "While I was sitting in the waiting room reading, something just came over me. Everything just sort of hit me hard."
For 43 years she has often thought about her grandfather, but last week she experienced two widely different emotions more strongly than ever -- a painful comprehension of just how brutally Morris was attacked and how long he suffered, and "how special he was to other people and how special he was to me."
For Rosa, the experience of the FBI's new look into her grandfather's murder has been overwhelming. While she is hoping the case will be resolved, she is hearing for the first some of the many theories and leads the FBI followed during its extensive investigation during the mid-1960s. Those same theories and leads are being followed again today. Hearing this information has not been a pleasant experience for her.
One theory was that Morris was a member of the NAACP and that because he was involved in civil rights, the Ku Klux Klan along with certain members of law enforcement and a criminal element which promoted gambling and prostitution, may have joined forces to kill Morris.
"Another theory," explains Syracuse Law Professor Janis McDonald, "explores the rift between two rival klan organizations, the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana and disaffected members identified by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee who founded the very violent branch of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in nearby Natchez and Meadville. According to newspaper reports, the Mississippi Klan was known to cross the river on occasion to instill fear in local inhabitants of Vidalia and Ferriday."
There are other theories, too, one of which is not going to make Rosa Williams rest any easier at night. But it's a theory the FBI explored and one that a Ferriday man says has validity.
Robert "Buck" Lewis of Ferriday, 69, was one of the leaders in the civil rights movement in Ferriday. He said the movement began in late 1965 or early 1966, but not as a direct result of the murder of Frank Morris.
He said the movement came after the arrival of CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) workers in the summer of 1965 and was the culmination of many events, Morris' murder included. The final straw was the fire bombings of black homes in Ferriday by the Ku Klux Klan.
"Black people long stood behind a wall of silence out of fear," said Lewis, adding that prior to 1966, there was "no NAACP or civil rights in Ferriday. The NAACP was banned in Louisiana for a number of years. Black people were afraid and many white people didn't know many of things that were going on. Some of them were scared, too."
Lewis worked from 1947 to 1961 for G.W. Galloway's Grocery on South Fourth Street. Galloway, said Lewis, "required me to read. I kept up with things. I read the News Orleans Times-Picayune, the Monroe paper and the Concordia Sentinel." Lewis and his boss would discuss political issues, often not agreeing, but freely exchanging ideas, he said.
Lewis said blacks suffered enormous indignities during those times, some of which would bewilder today's generation of young people.
"I remember going in the Arcade Theatre," he said, "and when you gave one lady a dollar for your ticket, she'd throw your change on the floor." Or, he said, waiting for a waitress to take an order at one downtown drug store was a no-win situation.
"She might not be waiting on anyone," said Lewis, "and you're standing there in the back and she'd say, 'I'm busy.' But someone else could come in and she'd take their order. And if you walked out you were considered sassy."
He recalls that he could walk in the front door of a restaurant and order a hamburger for his boss, but "if I wanted one I had to go in the back door."
He also resented being expected to say "yes sir" or "no sir" to white men his age or younger.
But it was also a time of danger. Returning home at night was sometimes a frightening situation, he said.
"Sometimes you would have to run on some streets" to escape threats and the violence from the Klan or Klan sympathizers who cruised the black neighborhoods. "We kept a stack of rocks and bricks in a building just to have something to defend ourselves with."
The "most dreaded thing," he said, "was to be put in jail. You might be beaten and you were afraid that you wouldn't make it out alive." There were several men who wore a badge then, he said, who were part of the Klan and supported or led these attacks.
While Lewis said he understood Klan membership in Concordia once stood at several hundred, he said the actual number of Klansmen who involved themselves in violence against blacks and whites was only a small percentage of that total.
"Maybe 20 in Ferriday who were actively violent," he said. For many years the King Hotel was their headquarters, Lewis said.
Lewis kept up with what was going on in town, and he often rode a bicycle along South Fourth Street in the days when business in Ferriday was flourishing. Lewis always "kept my ears open. I knew what was going on. You could also find out from maids or cooks for white people who would overhear talk."
And the talk was, said Lewis, that Frank's Shoe Shop was a place where white women and black men, or white men and black women, would rendezvous.
"That's a fact," said Lewis, "I knew it. Many people knew. I saw it. Frank only participated, as far as I ever knew, as a go-between. Why he allowed it to happen in his shop, I don't know."
The people involved, said Lewis, included some law enforcement officers and some Klan members.
Morris hosted a radio show on Sundays on KFNV where he would play gospel music and dedicate gospel songs. The FBI was told by some informants that Morris would use the show to set up couples in interracial liaisons.
"Frank would use these coded messages that the people who got together would understand," said Lewis. "Through that the people who were getting together would hear of a time and day to meet."
Lewis says he even knows by name some of the people rendezvousing at Morris' place. One white couple, he said, left town because of this.
"Something happened there," said Lewis, "somebody got mad and they decided to make an example of Frank."
Lewis says that's why he believes Morris was killed.
This motive was investigated by the FBI for months during the mid-1960s.
While Lewis has his ideas on who killed Morris, he doesn't know for sure.
Morris, said Lewis, was a good man who employed "many young black men." He said Morris was an usher at Mercy Seat Baptist Church.
If Morris was involved in such a dangerous game, he was definitely taking a big chance with his life in 1964. Yet Lewis notes that no motive would make Morris' murder "understandable."
In Las Vegas last week, Rosa Williams sat in a doctor's waiting room realizing that this new FBI probe may be the last chance to figure out who killed her grandfather and why. He was the most important man in her life, she said, and her brother Poncho idealized his grandfather.
Like Pat Davis Smith, Rosa remembers Morris in the mind of a little girl. In adulthood she knows that the 43 years since Morris' death means that time for justice is passing quickly and that the chances of finding out what happened dim every day the sun rises and sets.
The visualization of Morris overcome with pain on his deathbed in the Concordia Parish Hospital too afraid to name his attackers haunts her.
"I've found myself thinking about Papa Frank more and more until he stays on my mind constantly," she said. But she is not bitter and has not allowed herself to hate his killers.
"I just pray that Papa Frank will have peace," she said. "It was so sad that he couldn't tell anyone who did that to him. That's such a bad way to leave this world. It really is."
"But," she said, "I know we must be strong and hope God will help us find closure for Papa Frank. I pray He does."
And as those thoughts raced through her mind in that Las Vegas waiting room last week, Rosa Williams wept.