Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Louisiana, an unsolved murder from the civil rights era nearly 50 years ago has been revived. A grand jury has begun hearing testimony on the case. Last month we reported that it was the editor of the local newspaper who named a new suspect, a man who still lives in the area.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro traveled to Louisiana's Concordia Parish to find out more about that newspaper editor and how locals are reacting.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: When you drive on the main road in Ferriday, Louisiana, you go right past the spot where Frank Morris had his shoe repair shop. You won't even notice the concrete and bricks that still mark the foundation. The store was set on fire in December of 1964 with Frank Morris trapped inside.

Stanley Nelson is the editor of the weekly newspaper, The Concordia Sentinel.

Mr. STANLEY NELSON (Editor, The Concordia Sentinel): All of my life I pass by the shop and didn't know it.

SHAPIRO: Nelson grew up near here. He was nine years old in 1964 but he'd never heard of Frank Morris until four years ago. That's when the FBI put out a list of unsolved murders from the civil rights era and when Nelson first found out about the brutal Ku Klux Klan violence in his own community.

African-Americans here never forgot. But Nelson felt ashamed that for him - and for most white people - it was ignored history. So he feels that this town, and he personally, owe a debt of justice to Frank Morris.

Mr. NELSON: I think about him a lot and, you know, I do a strange thing when I come up here, and I'm doing right now. There was this horrible story that where everywhere Frank walked that night, he left a trail of bloody footprints. And I have spent quite a bit of time up here looking for blood stains of those footprints. It's a horrible thing to think about but that has haunted me...

SHAPIRO: But you've never seen it.

Mr. NELSON: Never. But I'm still looking for them right now.

SHAPIRO: Last month on the front page of his newspaper Nelson named a suspect: Leonard Spencer, a former Ku Klux Klansman, who's now 72 and lives in the nearby parish. The sources were Spencer's own family members. They say Spencer - and another Klansman, who's now dead - talked about setting the fire that night. Spencer insists he wasn't involved.

Last week a Concordia Parish grand jury began hearing testimony. Stanley Nelson says Frank Morris was rare for a black business owner in Ferriday.

Mr. NELSON: He had a business that had both a black and white clientele. People depended on Frank. It was important back in those days. Most people only had one pair of shoes per family member and so it was important to be able to make those shoes last as long as possible. So, Frank could put a sole of that shoe, he could stitch it. And he took great pride in what he did.

SHAPIRO: But this was 1964. Congress had just passed the Civil Rights Act. Many whites in this part of the South were angry and scared that the federal government was changing their way of racial segregation. To the Ku Klux Klan Frank Morris was a threat. He represented that feared integration because he was respected by some whites.

Black kids like Robert Lee grew up respecting Frank Morris too. Lee was in the Navy when his mother wrote that Frank Morris had died.

Mr. ROBERT LEE: It was heartbreaking because, see, here we were overseas, serving in the military for this country and then at home was this black man, who we looked up to was being burned out by whites. Then we're saying that why in the world am I over here, you know, sworn to the oath of office to die for this country for somebody else, and here this prominent man, this great man, was being burned to death by a bunch of Klu-Kluckers(ph) who probably couldn't even pass the test to go in the military. It pissed a lot of us off. I'm using the word pissed off, because it wasn't right.

SHAPIRO: In Ferriday, on the local radio station, among all the white DJs, Frank Morris had a show, too. Every Sunday morning he played gospel music.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I was talking to a lady a few days ago...

SHAPIRO: And when Robert Lee and his brother were in the military, Frank Morris would dedicate a song every Sunday to their mother, who he knew worried about her two sons, Robert and Willis.

Mr. ROBERT LEE: And he used to play this song for - he called Mama his school girl, I believe it was.

Mr. WILLIS LEE: Yes, yes.

Mr. ROBERT LEE: And it was a song, Lord, wait up for my child to come home.

Mr. Willis LEE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBERT LEE: And he played that for her while we all was off in Vietnam. And the song, it said if you see my child somewhere as you venture here or there, tell him I'm waiting for my child to come home. Yeah, but I can't sing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBERT LEE: You'd have to edit it all the way.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) If you see my child somewhere as you journey here and there, I'm waiting for my child to come home.

SHAPIRO: A lot of white people, too, listened to Frank Morris on the radio, like Glenn McGlothin when he was growing up. Today, McGlothin's got his rock 'n' roll cover band and he's the mayor of Ferriday.

Mr. Glenn MCGLOTHIN (Mayor, Ferriday, Louisiana): When I first got elected in '88, '88 to '96, I was a barber, and a mayor and I had a band. So my card actually said: Mondays and Fridays at the mayor's office; Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the barbershop; Friday and Saturday - partying.

SHAPIRO: Today being mayor is a full-time job. Mayor McGlothin says he doesn't fear the attention Ferriday is getting right now as the national media report the new revelations in the Frank Morris case.

Mr. MCGLOTHIN: Anybody around here knows we had a problem then. It's part of history. It is history. I mean, do we want to rewrite it and act like none of it happened? I can't see that. My point is this: Somebody was murdered. If it was my father or my brother I wouldn't care if it took a hundred years, I want to find them. So what is the difference and Mr. Frank's friends and family want to find out who killed him.

SHAPIRO: Sometimes people complain angrily to journalist Stanley Nelson: Why are you digging up something so unpleasant, something that happened so many years ago? But for the most part the reaction to his reporting is neutral or positive. The paper hasn't lost any advertising. It's even gained a small number of subscribers.

The Frank Morris story is the best detective mystery in town. To Nelson, holding the killers of Frank Morris accountable is about racial healing for Concordia Parish and for the nation. It's about justice for Frank Morris.

Mr. NELSON: I like Frank Morris. I respect him. He was a good man. I wish that I had known him. Every person that worked for Frank remembers him in such a good way. But Concordia Parish has not lifted a finger for Frank Morris, has not done anything for Frank Morris, but we can now. Justice is as important for everybody.

SHAPIRO: Now, the grand jury must decide. If Stanley Nelson was right and if there's enough evidence to indict the man he named as a suspect in the death of Frank Morris more than 46 years ago.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.