Why Frank?

Frank Morris may have been the first target of a local Klan organization known as the Silver Dollar Group which was determined to kill and spread terror even when Klan leaders were asking for a 90-day moratorium on violence.

In a 1970 book on the FBI's campaign against the Klan in Mississippi during the 1960s, author Donald Whitehead wrote that the local Klan group was organized at a motel in Vidalia and that Morris was the first person they chose to kill.

The book -- "Attack on Terror: The FBI Against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi" -- also provides a transcript of the first FBI interview of Morris. This interview was conducted just hours after his shoe shop in Ferriday was set on fire by his two attackers on the morning of Dec. 10, 1964 -- 43 years ago Monday.

Although only a few pages of the 321-page book are devoted to Morris' murder, Whitehead's sources with the FBI and possibly with Klan informants provided him with key information on the organization of the Silver Dollar Group.

Whitehead wrote that in late 1964 "a half-dozen or so Klansmen from the Natchez-Vidalia-Ferriday area of Mississippi and Louisiana happened to gather one morning in the coffee shop of the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia...The group soon discovered that all of them were irritated by the local Klans' timidity in ordering action projects against Negroes and white civil rights workers. Sam Bowers' order for the White Knights to suspend violence for a ninety-day period only angered them."

One Klansman at that meeting, Whitehead wrote, swore: "By God, I'm not afraid to kill a nigger if he needs killing." The other Klan members gathered around the table agreed.

At that point in 1964, the FBI had infiltrated Mississippi with hundreds of agents and had set up an office in Jackson after three Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia, MS, were reported missing during the summer. The three young men's bodies were found later buried in a landfill.

Due to the huge influx of FBI agents, Klan leaders like Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the Mississippi Klan, ordered his members to scale down the violence, a decree that didn't sit well with the men having coffee at the Shamrock. Even if the White Knights, the United Klans or Louisiana's Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were going to sit still for a while, these Klansmen were not.

As they railed against the order, Whitehead wrote that "one of the men toyed with a silver dollar. A Klansman asked to see it, and the owner pointed out that the dollar had been minted in the year he was born.

"From this remark grew an idea. Why not organize a small inner group of trusted Klansmen who would decide themselves when someone should be beaten or eliminated or when a church should be burned? Membership would not be limited to a single Klan, and each member would have to be a man not afraid of the FBI. The secret identification would be a silver dollar minted in the member's birth year. And so the Silver Dollar Group was born. There were no formal meetings. It is believed that the active membership was never more than twenty, but they prided themselves on being the 'toughest Klansmen in Mississippi or Louisiana.'"

Morris drew the Silver Dollar Group's ire, wrote Whitehead, because he was an "affable man, seemingly well-liked by local Negroes and whites" and "was the host on a sixty-minute Sunday morning radio program that featured religious music and talks by guest clergymen. He was not known to be active in civil rights work. But, it was whispered among Klansmen, Morris was guilty of 'flirting' with and making flippant remarks to white women who patronized his shop. It also was reported that he had been taking women at night into the bedroom at the rear of the shop."

That was the genesis of a group that made Morris its first murder victim, according to Whitehead, who died in 1981. On the morning of Dec. 10, 1964, Morris was awakened by two white men who doused his shop with gasoline, and forced him back inside the shop at gun point as they set the building on fire.

Engulfed in flames as he exited the shop, Morris ran to the Billups station down the street. The attendant at the all-night station reported that a dark-colored sedan sped away toward Vidalia as Morris' stumbled across a vacant lot to the station.

The shoe shop owner was severely burned, bleeding and naked after the fire burned the clothes from his body. The Billups attendant said the only threads on Morris were the waistband of his underwear and the neck band of his t-shirt.

Two Ferriday policemen arrived at the Billups station seconds after the fire and transported Morris to the Concordia Parish Hospital. Whitehead wrote that Morris was admitted at 1:45 a.m.

By midmorning on December 10, two unidentified FBI agents accompanied by Ferriday Police Chief Robert Warren and Fire Chief Noland Mouelle stood at Morris' bedside for the first of four interviews with the mortally wounded man. FBI documents reveal that "the interviews with the victim at the hospital were recorded with an IBM portable dictaphone." The tapes were sent to the New Orleans' division office.

Morris was so severely burned that those who visited his hospital room found it difficult to look at him. Every inch of his body with the exception of the bottom of his feet was scarred or bleeding.

Still in shock, morphine had provided him some relief from the intense pain by the time the interview began. But, FBI documents reveal, Morris' level of alertness would change, his voice would fade and sometimes it was hard to understand what he was saying.

The FBI transcript of Morris' chilling account of the fire, obtained by Whitehead, is as follows:

FBI Agent: I'm with the FBI.

Morris: Yes sir.

FBI Agent: Do you remember when these men were last in your shoe shop? Are they customers? Did you ever repair their shoes?

Morris: I don't know. I don't know exactly who the men was. One had on khaki pants and he was pouring gas out and when I got up to see he hit the window, he did. He hit the window and broke the window pane out and while he was breaking window panes out I come out to catch this joker. He had a shotgun..told me get back in, nigger...

FBI Agent: Have you ever seen them before?

Morris: I can't say who it was -- I probably seen them before......jacket on, had a shotgun and I went back in the house. Sure had a time getting myself out cause man it's....bout gone.

FBI Agent: Did you notice if it was a single or double barrel shotgun?

Morris: Yes it was single barrel.

FBI Agent: Were they inside your shop?

Morris: No, sir. They weren't inside the shop.

FBI Agent: Did you see them pouring gasoline

Morris: Yeah

FBI Agent: They were pouring it through the window?

Morris: No sir. One of the fellows, this fellow around the outside pouring it along the side.

FBI Agent: He didn't pour it inside your shop?

Morris: No sir. They must have poured it before I got there to the front.

FBI Agent: And how did you come out? Did you come out that little alley way where the gate is?

Morris: Yes.

FBI Agent: And when you came out was the car there or had they driven off?

Morris: They had driven off.

FBI Agent: Did you see which way they drove?

Morris: No sir. Sure didn't.

FBI Agent: Were they as big as you or were they smaller?

Morris: The one with the gun was bigger than me.

FBI Agent: The biggest one?

Morris: Yes, I was gonna get up to the door, see. I just stood by the door. He told me to get back in there.

FBI Agent: Get back in your little room?

Morris: No, sir. In the shop.

FBI Agent: Oh, he told you to get back in the shop?

Morris: Yes.

FBI Agent: Where the fire was?

Morris: Yes.

FBI Agent: You didn't go back into your bedroom?

Morris: I had to go back in bedroom to get out.

FBI Agent: I see, and the place was on fire then?

Morris: Yes, sir. Yes. No, sir. He struck the match.

FBI Agent: You saw him strike the match?

Morris: Yes sir.

FBI Agent: Then he threw it inside?

Morris: Yes, sir.

FBI Agent: Anything else that you can tell me that might help?

Morris: I don't know what happened and here is what it..I was laying there asleep and I heard someone breaking glass out. They broke the glass out...they broke the glass out. I come into my shop and...it look like one, he beat on the window with a ax handle or something and then two and another man around there....pouring gasoline around the place....I said what are you doing there?...Told me to get back in there, nigger..better off..shotgun.

FBI Agent: Did you recognize these men? This is important now. Did you recognize them?

Morris: No sir. I didn't recognize. I couldn't recognize....

Chief Robert Warren: Did you think they are from here?

Morris: Yes sir. I think they from here.

Warren: Where do you think they might work here, Frank?

Morris: I think they might work at Johns Manville or something like that over in Natchez.

Morris died four days later. No one was ever arrested for the murder.

Since last spring, the FBI has been reassessing this and other unsolved Civil Rights-era murder cases.

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