Federal agents who investigated the December 1964 murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris in the mid-1960s believed that three "persons of interest" in the case worked at International Paper Company (IP) in Natchez and were each members of the Ku Klux Klan, FBI records show.
The FBI pursued leads on about a dozen white men they believed were responsible for, knew about or were in some way associated with the black businessman's death, and they compiled a substantial record of their findings. But no charges were brought four decades ago.
The FBI reopened the cold case last year and agents have been in Concordia conducting interviews over the past three weeks.
FBI and Congressional records obtained by The Sentinel indicate that federal investigators, who were working with then-Natchez Police Chief J.T. Robinson, were uncertain what role the three International Paper employees may have played in the arson-death at Morris' shoe shop. But information the agents gathered on these three before and after the fire led them to believe the three were "persons of interest," an indication evidence was not strong enough to declare them suspects.
Those three men are deceased.
Of the three, one lived in Ferriday in Lancaster Subdivision and was associated with the Original Knights of the Ku Klux, a Louisiana-based organization. FBI records also show this man was questioned at his home in Ferriday in 1967 about the arson that claimed Morris' life. The man denied any involvement in the crime and maintained that black people, rather than white people, may have been responsible for the fire.
The other two IP workers who were persons of interest lived in Natchez — one on Westwood Road in the Montebello Addition. A World War II veteran who served in the Pacific, this man attended a Baptist church in Natchez and was a lodge member and a Shriner.
The third man was also employed at IP and lived on Cloverdale Drive in Natchez. Police Chief Robinson, during an interview in 1965 with an investigator with the House un-American Activities Committee, which probed the Klan in the mid-1960s, considered this man a suspect in a fire in Natchez on August 14, 1964, four months before Morris' murder.
The August fire destroyed Jake's Place, a nightclub on 609 South Wall Street. Three days earlier, arsonists destroyed Cario Bar-B-Que on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. in Concordia.
Jake Frishman, a white man, owned the Natchez lounge which catered to blacks, and included an area in the rear of the store where groceries were sold. A black woman, Evangeline "Sister" Thornton, managed the club.
About 50 persons were in Jake's the night of the fire, according to a report filed by Walter L. Brent, an investigator with the Mississippi Livestock Theft Bureau.
Frishman told the investigator that about 11:15 p.m. W.E. "Booty" Jones Jr. of 611 South Pearl "came in and told him that his place was on fire in the rear." A short time later, an explosion shook the building. Miraculously, no one was hurt.
Frishman told investigators he tried to put the fire out with a water hose hooked up behind the bar, but when the flames became too hot he fled with the cash register in his arms. All furnishings in the building were destroyed.
Robinson, the Natchez police chief, told a federal investigator in 1965 that Brent and city detective Charles Bahin found that the subjects "who bombed the building had gotten out of an automobile on Briel Avenue, walked down the (railroad) tracks to the rear" of the club, "came up a path to the southeast corner of the building and placed two five-gallon cans believed to have contained kerosene or some type of oil in it." Two sets of tracks were found.
A five-gallon can was also found in the rubble of Morris' shoe shop. Morris said on his death bed that he saw a man holding a five-gallon can spreading liquid seconds before the man threw a match igniting the shoe shop.
Robinson said the bottom of the "yellow five-gallon" cans found at Jake's had been "punctured from the outside several times by an unknown tool or instrument," apparently to allow the fuel to spread and provide the culprits time to move to safety before the liquid was ignited.
Robinson told a HUAC investigator that he believed the motive for the fire was related to civil rights workers who operated an office in a building next door. Robinson said the workers, many white, "had been in this place every night except this night, drinking beer and being around in the crowd."
One of the major reasons for the meteoric growth of the Klan in 1964 was integration and, said federal officials, white people, particularly white women, visiting a nightclub frequented by blacks would have drawn the Klan's ire.
One man Robinson considered a suspect, according to HUAC documents, was the Klansman from IP who lived on Cloverdale Drive and became a person of interest in the Morris case. About two hours prior to the fire at Jake's Place, Robinson said the fire and police departments received a call that a church was on fire on Cloverdale Road.
When the call came in, Robinson, who was patrolling town, told the HUAC investigator that he saw the Klansman on Briel Avenue near Jake's Place driving a 1960 or 1961 Ford Falcon.
"His name has come up in some Klan activity around here," Robinson told the HUAC official. "I followed him up Briel to Canal and out Canal to the bypass, and the bypass to over to Low
River Road, and the Falcon turned on Low River Road. He lives in Cloverdale, and that was where the fire was reported down toward Cloverdale across from the paper mill."
Robinson said police checked all the churches in town but "we figured that this was a false alarm, which it was." Robinson said police couldn't prove the Klansman was involved in the fire at Jake's Place "but he was in the area at 9:00..."
According to FBI documents, when interviewed in 1964 about Morris' death, this Klansman told agents that "if you arrest me you will also have to arrest" a deputy with the Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office.
A day after the fire at Jake's Place, Klansmen burned crosses throughout Louisiana, including dozens in Baton Rouge, Monroe, Lake Charles and Alexandria, as well as five in Vidalia.
Both of the IP workers from Natchez were members of the Morgantown unit of White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a group whose feuding members split in June of 1964. Both men were later associated with the United Klan, according to HUAC and Natchez Police documents.
IP and Armstrong Tire and Rubber Company were considered prime recruiting grounds for the Klan and by August of 1965 federal officials were in talks with IP manager Emmitt Jones, pressing him and IP officials to dismiss the known Klansmen working at the plant, according to HUAC files.
John D. Sullivan, a HUAC investigator, wrote a superior that Johns Manville, the second larger employer in the area, had informed its supervisors "to fire everyone who is a member" of the Klan.
Sullivan commented that 50 percent of known Klansmen in the area worked at IP. When federal authorities began interviewing Klansmen working at the plant, some of the unions complained, he said.
As federal officials continued day and night efforts to bring down the various Klans, they also were busy seeking informants -- Klan members who provided information on what was happening at Klan meetings and on what Klan leaders were doing. Sullivan thought IP represented a "golden field" for informants.
Sullivan estimated that 66 men working at IP in Natchez belonged to the Klan — 49 from the Mississippi side of the river, primarily Adams and Franklin counties, and 17 from the Louisiana side, almost all from Concordia.