On the 44th anniversary of the arson of Frank Morris' shoe shop in Ferriday, the FBI announced today it is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and indictment of those responsible for Morris' death.
Ricardo Martinez, Supervisory Resident Agent in Monroe, La., said Morris' case is the first in which the FBI is offering a reward since it announced its cold case initiative in February 2006. That initiative, the FBI said, "is to identify and investigate unsolved civil rights cases which resulted in death and which could still be viable for prosecution."
In February 2007, the Department of Justice and the FBI teamed up with Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP and the National Urban League to announce that 74 unsolved murders, including Morris', would be reviewed.
Morris, who lived in a bedroom in the back of his shop, died four days after the arson of his shoe shop during the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964. He told FBI agents from his hospital bed that he saw two men that night, one holding a shotgun and one a five-gallon can of gasoline, but never identified them.
U.S. Attorney Donald Washington said federal officials remain "fully committed to following the evidence wherever it may lead us. We continue to request those with knowledge and information about the Frank Morris case to come forward and provide whatever information they may have. Any and all information will be fully considered by federal investigators and prosecutors. We are grateful for those who believe in justice and the rule of law over the rule of men."
News of the reward gave new hope to Morris' granddaughter, 56-year-old Rosa Williams, who was 12 when the murder occurred.
"We hope and pray that this will help give someone the courage to come forward," said Williams, who now lives in Las Vegas, NV. She said the last time she saw her grandfather was not in his shoe shop on Fourth Street but a short walk away at 601 South 5th Street in Ferriday.
Williams grew up there, reared in the home of Helen "Polly" Branch, whom she called "Auntie." The house was located in front of the Mercy Seat Baptist Church, where funeral services were held for Morris in mid-December 1964.
"Often times Papa Frank came to visit and he and Auntie Polly would sit on the back porch and talk," said Williams. "A lot of times they would talk about me. Auntie Polly would tell Papa Frank about what I needed and other things."
"What we need now is for this to be resolved so we can put it behind us," said Williams. "My daughter visited a fortune teller the other day and was told that Papa Frank isn't resting. I don't know if I believe in all of that but I don't think he's resting and I don't think any of us will until we know what happened and who was responsible."
For almost two years, professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson of Syracuse University have directed dozens of students who have volunteered their time to research Morris' case.
"The posting of a reward is a sign that the FBI and the Justice Department are seriously committed to solving this murder" McDonald said. As a result of their work on the Morris case, the two professors founded and are co-directors of the Syracuse University College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative, which now involves more than 50 law students researching other unsolved Civil Rights-era murders in the Natchez-Ferriday area and throughout the South.
Since the Klan was believed to be involved in Morris' death, according to FBI documents, McDonald said those surviving Klan members "need to think very carefully about the consequences of staying silent at this time when they have an opportunity to come forward and make things right. It would be particularly important for those who know what happened but had only a small part in this to cooperate now when they might have a chance of resolving things before arrests are made."
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee in March the cold case initiative asked 56 field offices to "re-examine their unsolved civil rights cases, and to determine which cases could still be viable for prosecution. Since this initiative began, 95 referrals have been forwarded to 17 field offices."
He said 52 cases have been opened and of those 26 are ongoing.
"Agents investigating the remaining 26 cases have provided preliminary investigative conclusions for review by the Civil Rights Unit and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, to determine if additional investigation is necessary," he said. "Each will need to be assessed for its investigative and legal viability, and for those cases in which we can move forward, we will."
The FBI is urging anyone with information concerning the arson murder of Frank Morris to call the New Orleans FBI Field Division, 504-816-300, or the Monroe Resident Agency, 318-387-0773. All calls and callers will be treated confidentially, the FBI said.