MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
There are new developments this week in an unsolved crime from the civil rights era - the arson of a Louisiana shoe store in December 1964. The owner of the store was inside when it was set ablaze and he died of his injuries four days later.
A group of journalists from the U.S. and Canada calling themselves the Civil Rights Cold Case Project has spent years trying to solve some of these cases.
NORRIS: The journalist at the center of the arson investigation is Stanley Nelson. He's the editor of the Concordia Sentinel in Louisiana and he's been looking into the case for four years. The newspaper published his story yesterday. In it, he names a person suspected of being involved in the crime.
Nelson has been working with David Ridgen, a filmmaker from Toronto who brings us our story today.
A note to listeners. It contains language and graphic descriptions that could be offensive or disturbing.
Mr. STANLEY NELSON (Editor, Concordia Sentinel): Across the river is Concordia Parish. That's Louisiana. This is Adams County.
DAVID RIDGEN: Stanley Nelson works in Ferriday, Louisiana, the home of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart; just a small town of 3700 people, close to the Mississippi River.
Mr. NELSON: And in the '60s, what very few people know is that this general area may have been the most violent and the bloodiest area for Klan violence in the country, from - during the mid-'60s.
RIDGEN: Nelson grew up here but it wasn't until the FBI published a list of Civil Rights-era cold cases in February 2007 that he heard about the case of Frank Morris. Since then he has written almost every week about his region's turbulent history of white supremacy.
In the 1960s, the FBI conducted two investigations into the Morris arson but there were no arrests. Nelson and the Syracuse University Law School obtained the FBI files from those investigations through a Freedom of Information request.
Mr. NELSON: This is what remains of Frank's store, the foundation. Grass has grown in it but the layout of the store is exactly the same and this is what's left.
RIDGEN: Frank Morris was a personable man, one of the few African-American business owners around Ferriday, and also one of the few who would deal with both whites and blacks. Normally, he'd walk out to the curb to deliver or pick up orders from white women, while blacks did their business inside. Then, late on a December night in 1964, it all ended.
Mr. NELSON: Sometimes after midnight of the 10th, he heard what he described as glass breaking. So he got up to investigate and he said that as he approached the front door, that there was a man standing there. He actually saw two men. The man standing near the front door had a shotgun. The man said, get back in that shop, nigger. And about that time, the other man that had a gasoline can had apparently thrown fuel all over the area, outside and maybe inside 'cause they had broken out the front window.
The man threw the match and Frank said, it took me a long time to get out. So he was walking through a building that was not only on fire - intensely on fire - but it was filled with smoke and he couldn't see. And he was on fire himself.
He emerged from the back door of the shop about the time two Ferriday police officers came driving by.
RIDGEN: Stanley Nelson tracked down one of the police officers who responded, a man named George Sewell.
Mr. GEORGE SEWELL (Retired Police Officer): So we come around the curve, bricks were in the street, fire was in the street. And we got out of the car and we looked, Frank Morris was coming from behind his building, come running towards us. And all I remember is he had - his strap on his undershirt, it was still burning, the band around his shorts was still burning up. His hair looked like it was smoking and had a little fire or something.
RIDGEN: Another report says that as Morris ran out of the shop, he left charred and shredded flesh behind in the shape of his feet. He was rushed to the hospital where he held out, drugged with morphine, for four days before he died.
Reverend Robert Lee, Jr. was friends with Frank Morris. He visited with Frank in the hospital before he died. Stanley Nelson interviewed Reverend Lee who is now 96.
Mr. NELSON: And why do you think they burned his store down?
Reverend ROBERT LEE, Jr.: He was too familiar - white women would come and, if it wasn't too big a job, they'd sit in his place there while he fixed shoes. And maybe y'all, hard for you all to understand this, but back in those days that was crossing - that was crossing the line.
RIDGEN: Stanley Nelson began to call other retired law enforcement officers in the area to find out if they knew anything that could help. That led him to Bill Frasier, who worked as a deputy in the 1980s in Concordia Parish. They agreed to meet and Bill Frasier gave Nelson the biggest break to date in the case.
He started talking about Frasier's former brother-in-law, Arthur Leonard Spencer, a man who told Frasier that he had been in the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. But that wasn't all. Stanley recorded the interview.
Mr. BILL FRASIER (Retired Police Officer): Then I asked him, I said, did y'all ever kill anybody? He said we did accidentally one time. And he said Coonie Poissot - it was two of them in the back seat of a car. He said it was four people but I don't know who the drivers was. And he said he was in the back of the car and had a shotgun. And he said they went to Ferriday to burn a shoe store down.
Mr. NELSON: Spencer had a shotgun.
Mr. FRASIER: Yeah, to burn a shoe store down. And, you know, he said it was like 12, 1:00 in the morning. Wasn't nobody supposed to be there at that time of night. Except that when he shot the shotgun, about the time he shot the shotgun, he said there was a glass at the door. You know, there was a wooden door with a glass. And he said he shot the glass, well a man stuck his face in - he said a man stuck his face in about the time the shotgun go off. Now, he didnt tell me he killed the man. But he said the man died.
RIDGEN: Leonard Spencer is now 71. He was a trucker for 55 years. And by his own admission, he was a member of the Klan when he was in his mid-20s.
Three people from the truck driver's life, all of them related by blood or marriage, say they heard about Leonard Spencer's involvement the night Frank Morris' shop was burned to the ground.
Ms. BRENDA RHODES(ph): Just about everybody belonged to the Klan.
RIDGEN: Brenda Rhodes was married to Leonard Spencer from 1967 to 1971. She tells Nelson that her ex-husband didn't talk about the night at Frank Morris' shop. But a friend of his, Coonie Poissot, did. He described it to her in great detail.
Ms. RHODES: Yeah, they threw a match.
Mr. NELSON: He mentioned that. And did he mention that the man died?
Ms. RHODES: He lit that son of a bitch up.
Mr. NELSON: That was his words?
Ms. RHODES: Yep.
RIDGEN: And Leonard Spencer's own son, named Boo Spencer, says he has heard his father and others in the area talk about the Morris arson most of his life.
Mr. NELSON: Did you ever hear what the reason was that the shoe shop, they wanted it burned down?
Mr. BOO SPENCER: 'Cause they wasn't going to have a nigger there. Wasn't going to have a nigger establishment there.
RIDGEN: Boo has a criminal record and is currently on probation. Boo says he loves his father but he believes the Morris family deserves to see justice served.
Mr. NELSON: You think there's any regrets he has about...
Mr. SPENCER: I think he's sorry that he might get caught up finally.
Mr. NELSON: You don't think he has any regrets about what happened to Frank Morris...
Mr. SPENCER: No.
Mr. NELSON: ...or whatever?
Mr. SPENCER: No.
Mr. NELSON: Yeah.
Mr. SPENCER: No. No, he ain't sorry about nothing, I don't imagine.
RIDGEN: Next for Stanley Nelson was to talk to Leonard Spencer himself. Leonard Spencer lives in Rayville, a small crossroads in rural Louisiana. His aging farmhouse is at the end of a dirt road, surrounded by corn fields. They talk on the porch.
Stanley Nelson asks him about Coonie Poissot, now dead, the Klansman who had talked to Brenda Rhodes about Leonard Spencer.
Mr. NELSON: Well, we was talking about Coonie Poissot but you don't recall him or...
Mr. LEONARD SPENCER: Never heard that name in my life, as a matter of fact.
RIDGEN: Leonard Spencer may well deny knowing him. But his ex-wife Brenda Rhodes and son, Boo Spencer, contradict him.
And then Nelson asks Leonard Spencer about his time in the Klan.
Mr. NELSON: Did you ever hear him talk about any projects they were going to do or anything like that?
Mr. L. SPENCER: No. I'm going to tell you again now. I've been around. I mean, I've been straight up with you. I'm telling you truth about what you asking. We can talk all night, I don't care.
Mr. NELSON: Yes.
Mr. L. SPENCER: But I know it's more to this than what you're telling me. I just want you to know. I just want that understood. I mean, I'm not stupid. I want that understood. Now, we'll go ahead on what you asked me.
Now, what was the last thing you asked me?
Mr. NELSON: Did they ever talk about things they were going to...
Mr. L. SPENCER: Oh, well. No, because see, I do remember this - 'cause, again, I was too young, too small. They had what's called a wrecking crew. You know, if - like if, the way I understood it, if people - of course, the black and white was a big issue then.
Mr. NELSON: Oh, yeah.
Mr. L. SPENCER: So like if something was going on in Ferriday or Vidalia, they would send our wrecking crew. You know, I think it was 10 or 12 our men, I don't know.
Mr. NELSON: Yeah.
Mr. L. SPENCER: But anyway, if something was going up here in Raywood or Holler Ridge, then maybe Ferriday or Vidalia, you know. I remember that part of it.
Mr. NELSON: They'd switch back, do things for you...
Mr. L. SPENCER: Yeah, and that was so people wouldn't know where we were.
Mr. NELSON: Yeah.
Mr. L. SPENCER: But that's all I know about that.
Mr. NELSON: But you never heard anything about the one in Ferriday, about the shoe shop...
Mr. L. SPENCER: I told you. You were the first one that ever told me anything about Ferriday. But like I said, (unintelligible), never knew anything (unintelligible) in Ferriday...
RIDGEN: Last November, Nelson was ready to publish his story, and he called the Department of Justice for comment. They asked him to delay publication. Last week, he finally got to interview Tom Perez, an assistant attorney general, the man who runs the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.
MR. NELSON: We were asked by both the FBI and the Justice Department to hold our story beginning back in November and through December. Can you comment on, you know, as specific as you can be as to why we were asked to hold the story? We were told that it could jeopardize the case, and can you be more specific about that?
Mr. TOM PEREZ (Assistant Attorney General): You know, I really can't. And again, I apologize. You know, whenever we have investigations, oftentimes information flow is a one-way street. We ask people for information and we are not in a position to explain why we ask certain things. And I certainly appreciate the fact that that can be frustrating, but we are concerned about pursuing the case and that is really the sole motivator for us as we have an active investigation. And I can't get any more specific.
RIDGEN: Yesterday, here in Ferriday, Stanley Nelson's article rolled off the presses and onto the newsstand. And again, Arthur Leonard Spencer was asked on camera whether he was involved the night Frank Morris died. My colleague David Paperny asked the question.
Mr. DAVID PAPERNY: Well, let me ask you that directly then. Were you at all involved in the burning down of Frank Morris' shoe shop in December of 1964 in Ferriday, Louisiana?
Mr. L. SPENCER: Absolutely not. Never heard of the man. Didn't even know about that.
RIDGEN: Spencer does confirm that two FBI agents recently came to see him.
Mr. L. SPENCER: I know they talked about 30 minutes, and thanked me and I gave them my phone - my cell phone and everything. I said, call me, whatever, you know.
RIDGEN: Stanley Nelson believes his story could lead to a grand jury, and even an indictment. But whatever happens, he just wants the truth.
Mr. NELSON: I had hoped to feel this burden off of my shoulder, but it doesn't feel lifted right now. I mean, I feel good about Frank Morris, I feel good that maybe the FBI will move, but there is so much more to do.
RIDGEN: For NPR News, I'm David Ridgen in Ferriday, Louisiana.
NORRIS: David Ridgen is a member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project. It's coordinated through the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, California and Paperny Films in Vancouver.
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