Ties that bind: Klan, bad cops and criminals
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, August 23rd, 2007 @ 8:40 am
The tactics used in the attacks on Civil Rights workers in Ferriday in July 1965 were almost identical to those used in the murder of Frank Morris seven months earlier.
Morris' shoe shop, also his home, was set on fire by two white men around 2 a.m. on Dec. 10, 1964. As the annual observance of the birth of Christ neared, the Christmas spirit outside Morris' shoe shop in the form of his two attackers was decidedly more Satan-like than Christ-like. One carried a shotgun. The other gasoline and a box of matches.
Some of the suspects believed to have been involved in the attack on Morris either directly or indirectly were still on the prowl in July 1965, a worrisome month for a congressman from New York. U.S. Rep. Richard L. Ottinger was furious with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) at this time because of attacks on civil rights workers in Ferriday. He fired off a letter to U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach expressing his concern.
"The incidents in Ferriday," he wrote Katzenbach on July 22, 1965, "as well as in other areas of the South, affect not only my constituents but persons from all parts of the United States. If the FBI is unable to handle more than one incident at a time and cannot investigate various attacks and incidents of intimidation, then additional agents should be assigned immediately."
It is ironic that this shortage of agents then appears to be a problem today as the FBI reinvestigates Morris' and other civil rights era murders. Today's agents carry enormous workloads, much involving terrorism, while in Louisiana and Mississippi, FEMA fraud investigations are still underway and consume enormous time.
"The Justice Department as well as the FBI failed the Ferriday community 40 years ago and is in real danger of failing once again to bring justice to Mr. Morris, his family and all of us," said Syracuse University law professor Janis McDonald, who has a background in civil rights cases. "The Morris case didn't receive the proper attention it deserved at the time, and even now when there is a chance the case might still be resolved, the FBI has not been able to assign enough agents and the Justice Department isn't paying close enough attention."
But the problem is political, too, said McDonald, adding that the U.S. Senate has yet to pass the Emmitt Till bill, one version of which was approved by the House of Representatives on June 22. This bill is designed to provide DOJ and the FBI the financial resources and the manpower needed to work exclusively on resolving unsolved civil rights-era murders such as Morris', during the next 10 years. There is a great urgency for this work to be done now, said McDonald, because the remaining witnesses, informants and suspects four decades ago are aging.
Forty-two years ago, in July 1965, the parents of Michael Clurman, a civil rights worker in Ferriday, contacted the Justice Department and their congressman -- Ottinger -- when they learned that their son had been attacked on his first day in town as he canvassed a black neighborhood.
"A single attack is alarming enough," wrote Ottinger, "but permitting three separate attacks in seventeen days is inexcusable. It would appear that the Department of Justice and the FBI are not doing everything within their power to prevent attacks on civil rights workers and that those responsible for the attacks are not being brought to justice."
Ottinger wanted an immediate investigation, a report filed "as soon as possible" and requested that "all possible legal steps be taken against those responsible for the attacks and harassment, and that positive and definite efforts be made to guarantee that similar incidents not be permitted in the future."
He said that for a third time "in as many weeks' Clurman "has been subjected to physical attacks, intimidation and harassment in Ferriday, Louisiana."
Ottinger cited the following attacks:
• July 3, 1965: Two CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workers were attacked by two "convicts" brought to the scene by a Concordia Parish deputy.
• July 15, 1965: An attempt, said Ottinger, "was made to burn down the house in which" five civil rights workers with CORE "were sleeping." The sheriff's office, he said, "was disinterested" on the matter.
• July 20, 1965: "A certain group," said Ottinger, "presumably members of the Ku Klux Klan, beat up two CORE workers and fired shots into various Negro homes." When this was happening, a deputy "was cruising nearby," said Ottinger.
The evil deeds directed at the CORE workers may have been delivered by the same people responsible for the murder of Morris, based on information found in FBI documents involving the Morris investigation, and through other sources. For months prior to Morris' murder and for months afterward, there was an unspoken conspiracy among certain members of law enforcement, the Ku Klux Klan and some of the people who promoted gambling and prostitution parishwide to terrorize the community.
Consider how Frank Morris' life was attacked.
One white man held a single-barrel shotgun on Morris, who was awakened by the sound of glass breaking and went to investigate. The man with the gun forced him to return to the back of his shop, which was also his home, while a second white man lit a match. The burning match was thrown on a puddle of gasoline that had been spread around part of the store. Before Morris could get from the front of the store to the back door the place exploded into an inferno.
Morris was seen running down the street to the Billups station in flames, pleading for help. His 10-year-old grandson was among four people known to have observed this. But because of his fear of his attackers, Morris refused to identify them to the FBI before dying four days after the arson.
For months Klan members were in a frenzy. They lit crosses. They threw fire bombs and burned several buildings to the ground. They published scandal sheets defaming women and making allegations of a sexual and racial nature. They cruised black neighborhoods shouting racial slurs and threatening anyone who crossed their path.
A witness to the arson of Morris' shoe shop -- Junios "Tee-Wee" Kelly -- was ordered to leave town by this same element as federal authorities investigated the murder. Kelly, who died in Monroe seven years ago, left Ferriday in the days following Morris' murder and never returned.
John Doar, Assistant Attorney General in Washington, Civil Rights Division, answered Congressman Ottinger's concerns about the civil rights workers in Ferriday in a letter on Sept. 10, 1965.
Concerning the arson attempt on the house where the CORE workers were staying, Doar said "three flares were thrown into a house next door to the house where CORE workers are staying; outside, a large bottle of a volatile liquid was found. Local police (Ferriday Police Department) investigated, obtained some physical evidence and patrolled the area of the CORE house the rest of the evening. The FBI has conducted an investigation, but has not been able to identify the persons responsible as of yet."
Concerning the July 20th incident, Doar said, "a white man assaulted four CORE workers...The Ferriday Police arrested a man with respect to this incident and have charged him with fighting and disturbing the peace. He has been released on bond. The FBI has investigated this incident and we are following local prosecution of the person arrested."
Later on the evening of July 20, said Doar, "two young white men fired shots in the Negro section of town. A Negro woman exchanged shots with them. The FBI is investigating; however, although several suspects have been developed in this matter there appears at present to be little chance of establishing federal jurisdiction because the shots do not appear to have been related to any activity covered by federal statute, but were in retaliation for a prior rock throwing incident."
He said the FBI was also "investigating an incident where shots were fired into a residence in the Negro section of Ferriday on July 21 and two fire bombs thrown at Negro houses on July 27."
But Congressman Ottinger noted, the attacks on the civil rights workers were "in complete violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as those principles held sacred in the Constitution -- the rights of free speech and assembly."
Doar responded that "the federal government has no authority to undertake police protection for civil rights workers, and their responsibility must remain that of state and local authorities. I can assure you that we are following the Ferriday situation and are attempting to prevent violence in those ways open to us, namely through the immediate investigation and presentation of offenders and the notification of local authorities of pertinent information."
Not even federal authorities could seem to get a handle on these crimes, although Ferriday Mayor L.W. "Woody" Davis did the best he could, but as he noted, "Our resources were small." So intense were the Klan threats against him and his family that he carried a Thompson submachine gun for protection.
Always lurking on the periphery of all of these events in Ferriday were men with badges -- a handful of deputies with the Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office, men the FBI watched and interviewed.
The ties that bind Morris' murder and the events in the summer of 1965 include:
• Suspects: Ku Klux Klan, certain men in law enforcement and a criminal element.
• Motive: To instill fear and command silence in order to keep the status quo.
• Method: Intimidation by the use of guns, arson, threats and fists.
What did Frank Morris do to so offend this element? It's still unclear 43 years later.
Father August Thompson, a friend of Morris', visited the dying man twice in Room 101 of the Concordia Parish Hospital. Morris took his last breath in that room 11 days before Christmas on Monday, Dec. 14, 1964, at 7:30 p.m.
Even now, despite the passage of more than 15,500 days, a haunting question still nags the 81-year-old priest.
He wonders: Why Frank?