Forty-four years have passed, but Leland Boyd can still recall the shock he felt as a 12 year old when he first saw the charred, smoking rubble of Frank Morris's shoe shop on the morning of Dec. 10, 1964.
"We were on the school bus and passed the shoe shop. I looked out the window from the right side of the bus," he said. "I saw the place had burned down."
Then his eyes caught something else and he felt sick. "I remember seeing bloody footprints on the concrete and that really upset me."
The fire, and Morris' death as a result of it four days later, had special significance in the Boyd household. Boyd, along with his father, Earcel Boyd Sr., had been frequent visitors to Morris' shoe shop, the only one in town.
"My dad and Frank Morris were good friends," said Leland Boyd. "They had known each other a long time. I was in Mr. Frank's shop at least twice a week with my dad."
But there was another reason: Earcel Boyd Sr., his sons say, was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and a member of a militant offshoot known as the Silver Dollar Group — and the fire was quickly viewed by the FBI as a racially-motivated arson-murder.
Leland Boyd, who is 57 and now lives in Texas, recently contacted The Concordia Sentinel after learning of its ongoing investigation into the attack on Morris' shoe shop.
"I didn't know this case had been reopened until just a few days ago," said Leland. "I want to see it resolved for Mr. Frank's family."
In separate interviews, Boyd and his brother, T.J. Boyd, 51, of Wisner, provided a rare view of life inside the home of a Klan leader and in a world defined by the Klan, which the Sentinel will explore further in the coming weeks.
They described Earcel Boyd Sr. — then a 41-year-old tire builder at Armstrong Tire & Rubber Company in Natchez, a part-time carpenter and ordained Baptist minister — as a man who was personally violent and kept their family in a state of fear, and who was filled with fury over the growing civil rights movement.
"My dad would hit us with his fists," said Leland.
"He could go off," said T.J.
Yet they also portray him as having been a close friend of Frank Morris, and so outraged at Morris' death that he vowed to take action against the attackers -- and may have.
In the four days that he clung to life at Concordia Parish Hospital in Ferriday, Morris told the FBI and visitors that his attackers were "two white friends" who were accompanied by a third man outside of Morris' view. Morris was asleep in a room in the back of his shop, he said, heard glass breaking and went to investigate.
In the front of the shop he confronted two men — one armed with a shotgun and the other holding a five-gallon can, apparently filled with gasoline or some type of accelerant. The man with the shotgun, Morris said, told him to "get back in there nigger," while the man with the can appeared to throw a match which ignited an inferno.
The FBI conducted an intensive investigation into the arson/murder four decades ago but never made an arrest although agents zeroed in on as many as 12 men they considered suspects.
Among the witnesses interviewed by the FBI was an attendant at the Billups service station a half block away from Morris' shop at 415 Fourth Street (now E.E. Wallace). The attendant said he watched Morris emerge from the back of his shoe shop covered in flames. The man later told the FBI that Morris was also "bleeding profusely and left tracks of blood everywhere he stepped."
The FBI reopened the cold case in the spring of 2007 and recently offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Morris' killers.
At the time of the attack on Morris, the Boyd family -- Earcel Sr. and his wife, their four sons and a daughter, lived at 140 Crestview Drive in Ridgecrest.
Leland Boyd said that on the morning his bus drove past the remains of Morris' shoe shop and dropped him off at school, he went directly to the principal's office and called his mother, Marjorie, and told her about the fire.
"My mom hung up the phone and called my dad who was at work at Armstrong," said Leland. "Forty-five minutes later dad picked me up at school. He wanted to know what I had seen and asked who I had talked to. He told me under no circumstances to discuss the fire with anyone."
For Leland Boyd, those days are especially memorable because they came just as he was becoming a teenager. He turned 13 on December 12, two days after the arson.
In the days to follow, Leland Boyd said FBI agents were in and out of the Boyd home. Once, he said, his father "threw a redheaded FBI agent through our front screen door."
"I'm not sure why he threw the guy out but he did," said Leland, who recalled his father being questioned about Morris' murder and on other matters.
Leland said he once heard his father tell an agent, "I know what you think. You think I or my people had something to do with this. But Frank was my friend."
Earcel Boyd "was livid over Mr. Frank's murder," said Leland. "He said no one should have to die that way." Leland said he overheard his dad tell someone on the telephone, "I'll find out who did this and will get it taken care of."
Leland is certain the FBI agents were often watching the Boyd home because Earcel was in the Ku Klux Klan.
Leland and T.J. Boyd believe their father was also a member of the secretive Silver Dollar Group, a militant offshoot of three Klan organizations — the Original Knights, the White Knights and the United Klans of America. "I heard Dad talk about this Silver Dollar club he was in," said T.J.
The Silver Dollar Group, according to a 1970 book by author Don Whitehead — Attack on Terror: The FBI Against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi — included about 20 men dedicated to the violent defense of white supremacy and segregation. These men were furious when, on Nov. 15, 1964, at a state meeting in Mississippi, the White Knights placed a 90-day moratorium on any projects involving arson/bombings or murder.
The order came from Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights who lived in Laurel, Miss. This resolution, according to federal documents, came in response to the intensive heat placed on the White Knights by the FBI following the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., during the summer. Several White Knights were later convicted in connection with the murders including Bowers.
According to the House un-American Activities Committee, which investigated the Klan in the mid-1960s, the moratorium was to begin on Dec. 1, 1964, and continue until March 1, 1965. But Whitehead learned from FBI sources that Morris became the Silver Dollar Group's first victim because he was spending time with white women in the back of his shop.
The Sentinel has learned that the FBI was also looking at other motives, including the theory that Klansmen didn't like the fact that Morris, a black man, operated a business which was patronized by white women in a day when segregation was the only accepted way of life in the South.
In addition to Morris, two Armstrong Tire employees and NAACP members were Silver Dollar Group victims, according to Whitehead. One was George Metcalfe, who was seriously injured by a car bomb in August 1965. The other was Wharlest Jackson Sr., killed when a bomb placed beneath the driver's side of his pickup exploded in February 1967.
Retired FBI agents confirmed the Silver Dollar Group's existence in interviews with The Sentinel and confirmed that Morris, Metcalfe and Jackson were believed to be targets. Membership in the group included men from the Ferriday, Vidalia and Natchez areas and the alliance was initiated over coffee at the Shamrock Motel cafe in Vidalia. Whitehead wrote that each member carried a silver dollar minted in the year he was born. "My dad always had a silver dollar in his pocket," said Leland. "When he died in 1988 we discovered that he had several. I knew that the silver dollar had a significance with the Klan but I never knew exactly what."
Leland's brother T.J. said he has some of those silver dollars in his possession. "One is well worn," he said. "Dad use to show it to people all the time."
Leland and T.J. said they often tagged along with their father during visits to the Shamrock cafe.
"I ate breakfast there many times," said Leland. "That place had strong coffee."
"I remember Dad would sit us down and we'd order something to eat like a hamburger," said T.J. "Then he'd go over and talk to other men. Some of them were Klansmen, too."
Despite Earcel Boyd's strong views on race, Leland said his father welcomed Frank Morris to their home on many occasions. "He ate at our table," Leland said of Morris. "My dad called Frank Morris his friend. My dad's views were that everyone should be treated equally but the races should not mix. He was a hypocrite and I learned that at an early age. But he always treated Mr. Frank as a true friend and was determined to find out who killed him."
"We understood that two of the men who killed Frank either left town or were taken care of in another way," said T.J. "We didn't know their names. Dad said the two men were given a choice -- turn yourselves in or be taken care of in another way."
"We were also told there was a third guy involved but we never heard what happened to him," said Leland.
The brothers' father — Earcel Boyd Sr. — was born July 9, 1923, in Catahoula Parish, and "grew up around Jena and Ferriday," said Leland. Leland said his father was a man of great determination and often told a story which illustrated his single-mindedness.
At the age of 12, Earcel Boyd Sr. did what many would consider crazy. He swam across the wide and swift Mississippi River from Vidalia to Natchez to win a 50-cent bet over whether he could do it.
Earcel told Leland that when he got to the other side, Earcel's dad was waiting on him with a razor strap. Earcel told Leland "he jumped back in the water and swam back to the Vidalia side."
Leland said he was born in Natchez in 1951 and the family lived in Bude (Franklin County), Miss., until 1957. "Our house burned down three weeks before I was born at Bude," said T.J. That's when the family moved to Louisiana, eventually settling at 140 Crestview Drive, Ridgecrest, in Concordia Parish.
Earcel and Marjorie had five children: Earcel (Sonny) Jr., Shelby, Leland, Thomas Jefferson (T.J.) and Benjamin E.
Leland said the home on Crestview was small and "had paper-thin walls," which made it easier for Leland and his siblings to overhear his father's conversations about the Frank Morris murder and Ku Klux Klan activities. The family settled into an outwardly normal domestic life in Concordia Parish and Earcel Boyd became a member of the Sycamore Baptist Church where he taught the men's Sunday School class, was involved in church functions, and drove the church bus.
While Earcel took his family to church he also took his boys to Klan rallies. "He went to Klan meetings all over Louisiana and Mississippi," said Leland. "I went with him to several meetings and cross burnings in Ferriday, Clayton, Jonesville, Natchez, Vidalia, throughout Mississippi and Louisiana -- just everywhere."
T.J. recalled a rally in Clayton behind the Chicken House, a cafe and bar, where several high-ranking Klansmen were in attendance. "Some of the men were wearing red and green robes, which is the sign of an officer, and some had markings on their sleeves denoting rank," said T.J.
The brothers also remember other aspects of life as the sons of a Silver Dollar Klansman -- men talking in hushed tones in the Boyd home on Crestview Drive on a regular basis, the storage of bombs in the attic and family picnics where Klansmen honed their skills with explosives while the children played baseball and the women fried catfish.
"This was normal life to us," said T.J., who along with his brothers Leland and Sonny are ordained ministers. T.J. pastors fulltime in Franklin Parish.
But, Leland and T.J. say, they realize now their lives were not normal. By 1967 Earcel Boyd was the second highest ranking Louisiana member of the United Klan of America (UKA), which was the largest Klan organization in the United States at the time.
According to a report filed by investigator Charles E. Snodgrass of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety on April 24, 1967, some 300 Klansmen — 50 robed and 18 in security uniforms — attended a rally held two days earlier in Rankin County. This document is housed at the McCain Library and Archives at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
Snodgrass said speakers included Byron DeLa Beckwith, later convicted for the 1963 murder of Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers, and Robert Shelton of Alabama, the leader of the UKA with the title of Imperial Wizard.
"When I was a boy, I went with dad to a rally and I met Robert Shelton," said Leland.
"I was given an autographed copy of a photo of Mr. Shelton," said T.J.
Another speaker at the 1967 rally was Ernest Gilbert of Brookhaven, the second highest UKA officer in Mississippi with the title of Grand Titan. Louisiana's Grand Titan — Earcel Boyd — was also "observed at the meeting," wrote Snodgrass.
"My dad was a troubled man," said Leland "We all lived in fear of him."