The nights were scary in Ferriday in the summer of 1965, a civil rights worker said, because you spent your time hoping "that the Klan doesn't come. And you guard and walk back and forth. Anything that moves you shake at it and yell at it. That's the average night. Just walk around and hope the Klan doesn't come."
In his words, the Ku Klux Klan was composed of "a bunch of nasty cats..."
Ku Klux Klan activity was believed to have been at an all time high in Natchez and Concordia Parish in 1964 and 1965 following sweeping national civil rights legislation. Klansmen were suspected of involvement in the death of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris 43 years ago, a case the FBI is now reassessing.
Morris was attacked by two white men during the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964. He died four days later from severe burns he suffered in a fire set by these two assailants, one of whom held a shotgun on Morris and forced him to the back of the shop as the other man lit a match and ignited the building. An explosion followed. The fire destroyed Morris' business, where he also lived in a room in the back.
Nicholas von Hoffman, a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, wrote 43 years ago that Robert M. Shelton of Tuscaloosa, AL, Imperial Wizard of the United Ku Klux Klan, led a large Klan meeting in Liberty Park in Natchez on Aug. 29, 1964, just four months before Morris was killed in Ferriday.
Natchez Mayor John Nosser, whose own property was bombed by the Klan, told Hoffman that both blacks and whites in Natchez "were scared" due to Klan violence. The Klan and "white radicals," Nosser said, had a "well armed underground."
Nosser's hands were full. A boycott of white-owned businesses was organized by civil rights workers and tensions were strained.
The Klan, meanwhile, was working its fertile recruiting grounds at International Paper Company, Johns-Manville and Armstrong Tire. These three major plants in Natchez, all now closed, employed hundreds in the 1950s and 1960s. As many as 1,400 men worked at IP alone 50 years ago.
Former workers at these plants say Klan representatives used every opportunity to recruit them. While most white workers refused to attend meetings or involve themselves in the competing Klan organizations, some did join.
One man from Franklin Parish spent countless hours attempting to attract members to the Klan organization there. He actually showed up one night at a movie theater where a local man and his wife, and another couple, were eating popcorn and enjoying the show.
The Klan recruiter walked into the theater and asked the two men sitting with their wives to step outside. There he put on the "hard sell," telling them that the federal government was invading the South, and that blacks "were trying to take over." All of this was a Communist plot and anti-God, said the Klan recruiter.
But the recruiter's luck ran dry that night.
"I told him I had no interest in the Klan, and to leave me alone," said one of the men asked outside. "He did after that."
An unnamed confidential FBI source, which the bureau noted "has furnished reliable information in the past," said it was his "opinion Klansmen were responsible for the burning of Frank Morris."
Two major Klan organizations working this area in 1964 were the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and United Klans of America, Inc. (aka Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.) The latter was Robert Shelton's organization, which had its origins in Alabama and Georgia. The Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in Shreveport, says an FBI document, and the "purpose of this organization was to promote Americanism, white supremacy and the maintaining of segregation."
The FBI paid a visit in early 1965 to one reputed Klan member in Ferriday who had a business on Louisiana Avenue. The man, according to an FBI document, "stated that he was out of town the night that Frank Morris's shoe shop was burned down, nor did he hear about it until two days later. He could not furnish any suspects or motive for this incident."
The man "denied being a member of the Ku Klux Klan or any other similar type organization. He stated he was a segregationist, but did not condone violence in any manner. He advised that he was a member of the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race in Ferriday, Louisiana, but had not been active or attended any meetings for the past four or five months."
There are documents available which list the names of purported Klan members from Concordia Parish and Adams County.
Janis McDonald, one of the law professors from Syracuse University investigating the Morris case, told The Sentinel this week that she has asked Jonathan Seine, a third-year law student, to begin an updated freedom of information act request to gain access to the additional FBI files that were not turned over when the Southern Poverty Law Center requested documents 20 years ago.
Only a small portion of the Morris case file has been made available through the Freedom of Information Act. All of the files are stored in the FBI archives.
"We don't want to get in the way of the FBI while they do their job," said McDonald, "but we also want people to know that we aren't going to give up on this case."
One common tactic of Klan organizations everywhere was to burn buildings, especially churches, with molotov cocktails or by more sophisticated measures. A five-gallon gas can was found in the charred debris of Morris' store. Due to the nature of his business, which also included leather work, Morris kept a number of flammable liquids in his store. The floor had been mopped with coal oil in the hours prior to the blaze. The coal oil was apparently used to remove stains left by other chemicals.
The Klan not only burned buildings in retaliation and to spread fear, it also used arson as warnings to others, especially those involved in civil rights. Those who killed Morris could have been sending a number of messages. Although several motives have been explored, it is unclear just why Morris was targeted.
A white man from Iowa for one civil rights organization -- the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) -- had some knowledge of bombings in Ferriday in the months following Morris' murder. In July 1965, five CORE workers were spending the summer in Ferriday.
While here, they were interviewed by students sponsored by Standard University radio station KZSU. The station had sent a number of young people to interview CORE workers in the South at that time, and one interviewer came to Ferriday and recorded conversations with three members of CORE -- a white man from Iowa, and two native New Yorkers, one a black man and the other a white man. These interviews are stored in the Stanford University Archives.
The worker from Iowa said that "at least two white-owned restaurants or dancing halls...received threats from the Klan because they had Negro bands playing, you know. And they still kept the Negro bands playing and so they (the Klan) dynamited it."
This worker said he was not sure if the local Klan was connected to Robert Shelton's organization, but nonetheless he surmised that "it's probably connected with the Natchez group."
A black CORE worker, who recounted the long nights of fearing Klan attacks, said when "we first came here, we moved into this place...two nights later the Klan came and decided to give us a little demonstration of their power. They laid around several gallons of gasoline. I think it was gasoline. It was high explosives."
But although the explosives "didn't go off," the act "shook everybody," including the landlord, who "put us out the following day."
A third CORE worker, a white man, recalled that at "one house we were living in, three carloads of white men pulled up in front of the house about one o'clock at night with eight gallons of gasoline...and some flares. And they were going to spread the gasoline around; they'd already got the jugs on the front lawn; but we had set up a guard system, an unarmed guard at that time, and he switched on two spotlights which we had put up and these spotlights scared them off. It gets pretty frightening when you're coming with your jugs of gasoline to suddenly be fully illuminated. so they just threw a couple of railroad flares which stuck in and burned, but they didn't catch on."
He called it "an incredibly sloppy job."
The black CORE worker found a way to put a humorous spin on the dire circumstances. By his estimates, the local Klan was "quite strong. That's about all I can say because I haven't seen too much demonstration of the Klan, except a couple of bombings, the burning of Frank Morris, the attempted bombing of our house, us getting beat up, the shooting of one house. But other than that I haven't seen too much."