Courtesy of the Concordia Sentinel and William Brown
Frank Morris (in the apron and visor) is seen standing in front of his shoe shop in Ferriday, La., in the 1950s. He was killed when the shop burned down in 1964. Until now, the case has gone unsolved.
Frank Morris (in the apron and visor) is seen standing in front of his shoe shop in Ferriday, La., in the 1950s. He was killed when the shop burned down in 1964. Until now, the case has gone unsolved. Courtesy of the Concordia Sentinel and William Brown
In December 1964, Frank Morris' shoe shop was set ablaze in the middle of the night. Still inside at the time, Morris was severely injured; he died four days later at a nearby hospital in Ferriday, La. Like many Southern crimes against blacks in the 1960s — an era of racial strife dominated by criminal activities by the Ku Klux Klan — the incident went unsolved, despite an FBI investigation at the time.
Now, 46 years later, Stanley Nelson, the editor of the Concordia Sentinel newspaper, says he has found information that may implicate a man as a member of a Klan "wrecking crew," which is said by sources Nelson has interviewed to be responsible for burning down the shop.
The Frank Morris case is just one of many civil rights era cold cases that journalists like Stanley Nelson and David Ridgen are investigating as part of The Civil Rights Cold Case Project, which is an unprecedented collaboration of journalists from across the media spectrum, created in the aftermath of the trial of former Klansman James Ford Seale.
Ridgen, a filmmaker from Toronto who reported this story for NPR, helped to spearhead the project with Vancouver-based Paperny Films, and the Berkeley, Calif.-based Center for Investigative Reporting. In 2007, Ridgen published a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that led to the federal trial and conviction of Seale, for the 43-year-old murder of African-Americans Henry Hezekiah and Charles Eddie Moore, two 19-year-olds from the Meadville, Miss., area.
A month after Seale was indicted in January 2007, the FBI announced a new cold case initiative and published a shortlist of about 100 civil rights era cases that it planned to reprobe. In October 2008, Congress passed the Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, to provide the Department of Justice and FBI millions of dollars to investigate these cases. (See pages 14-16 of this PDF.)
The project reporters have already produced information in high-profile cases that prosecutors have used to build criminal cases against killers and conspirators who had walked free for more than 40 years. To date, every civil rights murder case that has been reopened and successfully prosecuted was the direct result of an investigation initiated by a journalist.
Nelson is a member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, a group of journalists, filmmakers, law schools and other organizations created in 2008 by Paperny Films in Canada and the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif. With the help of FBI documents Nelson received through Freedom of Information requests and from the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative, and extensive interviews with those who knew Morris or about the case, he was able to piece together the story, ultimately naming a person suspected of being involved: Arthur Leonard Spencer, 71, of Rayville, La.
Nelson published the story Wednesday morning outlining the the allegations against Spencer. In an interview with Nelson, Spencer denies those allegations. So far no charges have been filed. The Department of Justice and the FBI say they are conducting ongoing investigations into the Morris case.
"We are actively, as we speak ... involved in this investigation. ... Our effort here, as it is everywhere, is to try and uncover the truth. We know that [Morris] was the victim of a brutal murder and we want to figure out who did it and we want to figure out why they did it," Tom Perez, assistant attorney general who runs the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, said in an interview last week.
Cynthia Deitle, the chief of the FBI's civil rights unit, sent the Concordia Sentinel newspaper an e-mail with this response:
"I am convinced that there are individuals alive today who know who killed Mr. Morris. If they can summon the moral fortitude and courage to contact the FBI and tell us what they know, they will be heroes who will change history."