A Ku Klux Klansman told a Ferriday man that Frank Morris was warned to move out of his shoe shop a short time before a fire destroyed his business and claimed Morris' life in December 1964.
Antonne Duncan, 68, who served as Superintendent of Streets for the Town of Ferriday for 19 years, said he worked with the Klansman at Armstrong Tire & Rubber Company in Natchez.
The man, now dead, was identified by Duncan. This Klansman's name is on a list of alleged Klansmen from this region compiled in the mid-1960s.
A few years after Morris' murder, the Klansman told Duncan that he had built a small house for Morris located behind the home of the late Edna Williams Morris Brown, Morris' ex-wife, who died in 2003. The couple divorced in 1947.
Morris was urged to move into the house and out of the shop.
The house owned by Brown, painted white, is located across the street from Billups on Hwy. 84. The smaller house behind it built for Morris is painted gray. While both houses still stand, Morris was killed before he made the move.
"This man (Klansman) told me he thought Frank was a good guy but that other people didn't like him and he was branded," said Duncan. Morris' success in business and his white and black clientele were reasons many Klansmen didn't like Morris, Duncan was told.
Duncan does not believe the Klansman he knew, who owned a camp on Lake St. John, was involved in Morris' murder. The Klansman told Duncan that he "got out of the Klan" and "professed Christ."
But, said Duncan, a number of businesses along the south end of Hwy. 84 in Ferriday were targeted by arsonists in the mid-1960s, most of them black-owned or establishments that catered to black and white customers. In some cases, said Duncan, black men set the fires on the instructions of their bosses.
"If your boss told you to set a fire you had a problem," said Duncan. "If you set the fire you had to keep your mouth shut and if you didn't you had a problem because you knew a secret."
Duncan cites the burning of Anthony McCraney's Esso along Cocodrie Bayou on the south end of town in 1965 and of Haney's Big House and other businesses in a major block fire in 1966 as Klan-directed action. Duncan believes McCraney, a supporter of Civil Rights and a member of the Deacons for Defense, was targeted for that reason.
The Haney fire, said Duncan, may have been started by black men under pressure from the Klan. Duncan said the Haney fire also destroyed Big George's Lounge, Watkins' Grocery & Cleaners, John Smith's Pool Hall, Big Luke's Barber Shop and a skating rink.
The Klan believed that Haney had or was planning to house Civil Rights workers when they came to Ferriday beginning in the summer of 1965 and in successive years, Duncan said.
ANTONNE DUNCAN AND THE DEACONS FOR DEFENSE
One reason the fires were limited primarily to Hwy. 84 was due to the protection of an organization formed by black war veterans with combat experience. The group was called Deacons for Defense and Justice and was organized in Jonesboro in the fall of 1964.
Men who joined dedicated themselves to preventing attacks on blacks in their own neighborhoods by militant groups such as the Klan. The Deacons also sought to protect Civil Rights workers who often stayed in black neighborhoods.
In Ferriday, the Deacons had not been formed in time to protect Morris on the night two white men set fire to his shoe shop, which was also his home. Duncan, who was a member of the Deacons, also pointed out that the location of Morris' business was outside the Deacons' protection zone.
"We stayed inside the black neighborhoods," said Duncan. "Frank Morris' shop on Hwy. 84 was considered business and not residential. We didn't patrol bars either. We just protected people and their homes. We were protecting neighborhoods while the police were supposed to protect the businesses along the state and federal highways."
The Deacons were provided a charter by the state during Gov. John McKeithen's administration and other chapters sprang up statewide.
Duncan estimated that the Ferriday chapter may have included as many as 60 black men who were armed and patrolled the black neighborhoods at night and also provided protection during the day.
The dividing line was Louisiana Avenue. On the south side of that line were the neighborhoods protected by the Deacons.
"I was in my 20s and went to Jonesboro to a Deacons' meeting with Stanford Redvine," said Duncan. "The Deacons were all about protection. Because it was organized by Korean Conflict combat veterans it was run like a military operation."
Duncan said that when blacks and Civil Rights workers were attacked in the black neighborhoods in Ferriday that many in the community felt they had to step forward and provide protection.
"We would protect white people, like insurance salesmen, who came into black neighborhoods during the day to work," said Duncan. "But there was an understanding that they had to be out of the neighborhood by dark. We were doing this for survival and nothing more."
The Deacons were armed and used their weapons if necessary.
Duncan termed his participation in the Deacons as "not for Civil Rights but for survival. I made a commitment to God at an early age when I joined the church that if he would take care of me that I would take help take care of others."
He said the Deacons met in churches and were supported by the religious community financially "so that we could purchase gas for our vehicles and things like that. We had to meet in churches because that's the only place we could meet. We couldn't use public buildings."
Duncan recalled that at the time of the Deacons' formation that there were a number of church arsons in the Gov. McKeithen's home parish of Caldwell. One black church located on the old Minorca Plantation along the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. (Hwy. 84) was burned around that time, said Duncan.
Deacons worked in shifts, with men volunteering for different hours during the night. They hid in ditches and other hideaways in the neighborhoods, weapons in hand, prepared to defend their communities against any violent-minded visitors.
"Some blacks were afraid to get involved because they feared losing their jobs," said Duncan. But he said the men who did get involved were quickly able to curb the violence against blacks in their own neighborhoods.
THE DEACONS RESCUE BUCK LEWIS
One year after Morris shoe shop was burned by two men on Dec. 10, 1964, a group of Deacons went on a nighttime mission to protect a man released from the parish jail in Vidalia. They knew a group of Klansmen would be waiting for the man at the railroad tracks there.
On Nov. 21, 1965, Robert "Buck" Lewis was arrested in Ferriday when he ran from his house to his front yard with a shotgun in hand after his home had been the hit by a gasoline bomb about 9:30 p.m. In an article in The New York Times, reporter Roy Reed wrote that the bombing was the fifth reported in Ferriday in six months.
Lewis, his wife, and five children were inside but were unharmed although the "fire damaged the front of the house and the explosion broke several windows."
Ferriday police arrested Lewis and bond was set at more than $2,000 in district court in Vidalia. While the man who was the victim of the bombing was led away to jail, The Times reported that the FBI was investigating.
"I was charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, and attempted murder," said Lewis, 70. "I didn't assault anyone and I didn't fire my gun."
He was held in the jail in the old courthouse for 16 days and 17 nights before being released around 8 or 9 p.m. on Dec. 9, 1965.
"When I was let out I asked the bondsman to do something for me," said Lewis. He can't remember the bondsman's name, but recalled that the white man was from New Orleans, and drove a black Cadillac.
"I got him to drive me across the bridge to Natchez and then bring me back to Vidalia," said Lewis. "He dropped me off at my mother-in-law's house on North Magnolia."
Earlier that day, once learning that Lewis would be released from jail, Duncan and other Deacons held a meeting in Ferriday to discuss the need to get Lewis safely home that night. Because Lewis had so boldly defended himself with a shotgun in Ferriday, and because of his involvement in Civil Rights as president of the Ferriday Freedom Movement, word leaked out that a handful of white men would be awaiting his arrival at the railroad tracks in Vidalia.
Duncan said that when black men were released from the parish jail in the 1960s, that sometimes they were driven by a deputy to the railroad tracks which crossed the street from what is now Concordia Lumber and released. Those released at night sometimes faced a group of Klansmen who waited there.
Lewis' diversion tactic with the bondsman's help worked temporarily.
"The police might pick you up at your home and take you to jail, but they wouldn't take you home once you were released," said Duncan. "We decided to get Buck home safely. The older men didn't want any part of this, so me and a few of the younger men volunteered."
The Deacons, five or six of them, armed and ready for whatever came, loaded into a canary yellow 1965 Pontiac Tempest. The car belonged to Duncan's brother who was in the Army.
"We were packed in like sardines," said Duncan.
After they picked up Lewis on North Magnolia, Duncan gunned the Pontiac past the Klansmen waiting at the tracks. Aware that Lewis was to be released and having learned that Duncan and others were taking him home, the cars pulled onto Hwy. 84 in pursuit of the yellow Pontiac.
Duncan accelerated to 100 miles per hour with a "line of headlights" in his rearview mirror.
"There was a lot of construction work and we were zig-zagging," said Duncan.
When the Pontiac reached the Minorca area across the levee near where the Dodge Store is now located, a car raced down from the levee road and pulled in behind Duncan's car, separating it from the vehicles in pursuit.
Duncan assumes to this day that inside that car were FBI agents, who were often silently watching and communicating with one another at various areas in Ferriday and Vidalia.
"Somehow they knew about it," said Duncan, who recalled that he was driving so fast that he left the other cars far behind.
Later that same night, around 11 p.m., a man came to Duncan's home in Ferriday and ask him to come with him to transport some vehicles.
"He was a black man, but I knew something was up," said Duncan. "I said I didn't need another job. I didn't know what they had planned but I didn't think it was good."
Duncan said the Deacons kept the Klansmen and their sympathizers out of the black neighborhoods. Such men, he said, weren't interested in a fair fight and backed off when they didn't have a clear advantage.
"There were many white people who were against the things that were happening and some did what they could," he said. "But the Deacons were serious and we kept our neighborhoods pretty safe. But we had no control over the things that happened along Hwy. 84 and could not by our charter agreement with the state have protected Frank Morris at his shop even if we had been organized at the time."