Why would anyone want to kill Frank Morris?
Four decades ago, when Ferriday shopkeeper Morris died after an arson attack that may have been racially motivated, the FBI pinpointed five possible motives. Today, as the FBI investigates the case again, agents are sorting through the same motives.
Morris, who died four days after the arson of his shoe shop on Dec. 10, 1964, never identified his attackers by name. Instead, Morris told several people visiting him in his hospital room that he knew two of the three white men who set his building ablaze and forced him at gun point to remain inside.
Both the Rev. Robert Lee Jr., 95, of Clayton, and Father August Thompson, 82, of Pineville said Morris told them in his hospital room that he was attacked by "two white friends."
Former Ferriday Mayor Woodie Davis, 91, also visited Room 101 at the Concordia Parish Hospital where Morris told him he thought his attackers "were my close friends."
But Morris never said what he thought the motive was.
Also unclear then and now is why Morris was targeted in what may have been a Ku Klux Klan hit involving in some manner two to three Concordia Parish sheriff's deputies, according to redacted FBI documents obtained by The Sentinel through the Freedom of Information Act.
Among the possible motives for his murder explored by the FBI four decades ago and still being considered in its new investigation of the case are that Morris was killed because:
— He was involved in Civil Rights.
— He sexually propositioned the wife of a law enforcement officer.
— White women did business at his shop when segregation, though no longer legal, remained dominant in the South at a time when hundreds of activists, white and black, had moved into Mississippi and Louisiana promoting Civil Rights.
— Interracial sexual liaisons occurred in the bedroom in the back of Morris' shop during the nighttime hours.
— Morris was bootlegging whiskey.
The FBI at the time discounted two of those motives — that Morris sexually propositioned the wife of a law enforcement officer and that he was involved in civil rights, according to FBI documents. The FBI also explored an allegation that it was the wife of the law enforcement officer who made the sexual proposition, not Morris, and that Morris rejected the proposal, which angered the woman.
Regarding the third possible motive, it was not extraordinary for white women to bring their business to Morris' shoe shop and, while waiting for the work to be completed, to sit inside the store or in the parking lot among other black men.
But in the tense environment that came with new Civil Rights laws and major efforts to register blacks to vote and organize a politically active constituency, membership soared in the Ku Klux Klan and violent reprisals against blacks soared.
Rev. Lee says this possible motive makes the most sense to him. Because white women came to the shoe shop, Klansmen may have considered Morris "too familiar," Lee thinks, and some white men would have strongly objected to this.
The fourth possible motive that Morris was allowing interracial sexual liaisons between men and women to take place in the bedroom in the back of the store rings true, according to one Ferriday man.
"That's a fact," said Robert "Buck" Lewis, 70. "I knew it. 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.
Lewis, one of the leaders in the Civil Rights movement in Concordia, kept up with what was going on in town, and often rode a bicycle along South Fourth Street in the days when business in Ferriday was flourishing.
Lewis said he was a close observer of what was happening in town.
"I always kept my ears open," he told The Sentinel in 2007. "I knew what was going on. You could also find out from maids or cooks for white people who would overhear talk."
But while Lewis says eyebrow-raising activities took place at Morris' shoe shop at night, men such as Rev. Lee and Father Thompson said they never heard about this. Lewis, Lee and Thompson do agree, however that Morris was not involved in Civil Rights.
The fifth motive investigated was that Morris was involved in bootlegging alcohol. Ferriday authorities found a suitcase filled with 14 half pints of bourbon, each individually wrapped in newspaper, in the rubble of Morris' shop.
Ferriday fireman and jailer, the late Junior Harp, told the FBI hours after the arson that Morris had been suspected of bootlegging whiskey for the previous three to four years but that the police department never "developed any positive information in this respect..." Fire Chief Noland Mouelle, also deceased, said at the same time that he discovered the suitcase in the rubble and also noticed "two or three empty half pint whiskey bottles on the floor of Morris' living quarters."
An FBI agent examined the suitcase and its contents. He found it "slightly scorched but not badly burned." The suitcase was found in Morris' bedroom, located in the right rear of the shoe shop. This room "bore evidence of having been exposed to fire."
There was a thriving bootleg business in Concordia at the time made more profitable by what happened in Natchez and Adams County just six weeks earlier. Local authorities, backed by scores of FBI agents and Mississippi state troopers, prohibited the sale of hard liquor and put a stop to back-room gambling.
These actions were prompted because of a rash of beatings, murders, arsons and bombings. Natchez Mayor John Nosser's home on 207 Linten Avenue was bombed in September, the first time the Klan had used explosives in Adams County, according to the late J.T. Robinson, who was police chief in Natchez at the time.
The bomb, which exploded eight feet from Nosser's front porch, left an eight-inch deep crater, 12 inches in diameter, in the lawn, caused heavy damage to his home and broke out windows in nearby residences. The blast shook the Mississippi River bridge and could be heard throughout town and across the river in Vidalia.
Nosser's daughter and her girlfriend had left the home, walking through the front lawn, 15 minutes prior to the blast. Nosser and his wife, both outside watering flowers, came inside five minutes after the girls left. The couple was watching television when the house was shaken by the explosion.
As authorities responded to that blast, another bomb exploded blocks away near the 1144 North Pine home of Willie Washington, a black contractor recently hired by Nosser to help build a shopping center. There was speculation that Nosser and Washington were targeted by the Klan because of their working relationship and because the mayor was speaking out about the violence.
The bomb left a crater in a driveway between Washington's home and that of Louis Berry at 1142 North Pine. Glass was broken in the windows of both homes.
No was injured in either blast.
That night, Police Chief Robinson stationed 10 shotgun-armed uniformed patrolmen at strategic locations throughout town.
The next day Nosser appealed to Natchez citizens "to stand up for law and order at a time when it appears that radical elements are threatening not only the properties but the lives of the people who live here." Otherwise, he said, "Natchez will live under a reign of terror and will become a ghost town."
In the background, Billy Bob Williams, an FBI agent in charge of coordinating local, state and national authorities in combating the violence in Natchez and Adams County, appealed to his superiors for help in the fight against the Klan.
That resulted in almost two dozen Mississippi state troopers and FBI agents being assigned to Natchez. Because groups of Klansmen, which police also called "local hoodlums," were moving about at night authorities prohibited all forms of gambling and hard liquor sales effective midnight on Thursday, October 29, 1964. Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson said he was backing the effort in a move to "keep the lid" on the violence.
As authorities moved from joint to joint to enforce the ban, the gamblers and the bootleggers joined those already operating in Concordia.
Adams County Sheriff Odell Anders told the Mississippi Highway & Safety Patrol in November 1964, the month Robert "Buck" Lewis' Ferriday home was damaged by a gasoline-fueled bomb, that "seven or eight package stores had opened in Vidalia since the shutdown in Natchez."
Was Morris bootlegging whiskey in his Ferriday shop and did this action anger another businessman, supplier or bootlegger who wanted to put Morris out of business?
FBI documents in The Sentinel's possession offer no conclusive evidence on this possible motive.