Stanley Nelson’s name is familiar to readers of The Franklin Sun who have enjoyed his historical columns, “History on Deadline,” and other articles through the years.
But behind the name is a man who is not only interested in relating history, but also has a heart for the stories of the people behind the headlines. Such is particularly the case when it comes to stories of horrific pain and suffering fueled by hatred and meted to people simply because of the color of their skin.
Nelson was guest speaker at the April 1 meeting of the Winnsboro Rotary Club, which fittingly took place in the Genealogy Room at Franklin Parish Library last week.
Nelson, who retired in December from the Concordia Sentinel, The Sun’s sister newspaper, after many years there as a writer and editor, began working on Civil Rights-era unsolved killings in 2007. Over the years he wrote more than 200 stories for the Sentinel, researching cases which spread out over northeastern Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi.
But to find out how he came to take such a keen interest in such cases, you have to go back, as he shared with his Rotary audience, to his childhood in Catahoula Parish.
Born in the 1950s in Ferriday, La., and growing up in Catahoula Parish, Nelson was a young boy in the mid-1960s, an era of the passage of Civil Rights laws and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
“As a kid even, I was interested. The Klan was this invisible empire. Nobody knew who the members were, although the people might suspect. As a kid I would watch on t.v. and I would see how many people were being killed by the Klan and that was of interest to me and I wanted to know why they were doing that,” Nelson recalled.
He also recalled a situation which touched close to home, as close, in fact, as his family’s mailbox.
In the late ‘60s when schools were about to be integrated, Nelson said he walked down the country lane to the mailbox to discover a newsletter from the Klan, which he said was one of their propaganda sheets.
He recalls that was in August with the first day of school nearing. The newsletter contained a warning, he said, ‘do not send your kids to school with black children.”
“And, of course, it wasn’t worded that nicely,” Nelson said.
“And my thought was, who were the bullies, who are the men that are doing this?
From that point on I just was interested in the Klan. I was interested in why they were getting away with so many murders and so many crimes and why weren’t communities rising up and doing something.”
He said he understands now that was a different time and everyone was afraid.
Later as a grown man, Nelson was approached by Lesley Hanna Capdepon, general manager for the Sentinel, about a television broadcast she had seen regarding the Justice Department looking into unsolved Civil Rights-era killings. The unsolved cases included the death of a black Ferriday shoe shop owner, Frank Morris.
With that began Nelson’s journey into searching for answers regarding who committed such atrocities.
Nelson shared the chilling details of how Morris heard a glass breaking one night and saw two men standing outside his shop, one with a gas can and the other with a shotgun.
One of the men threw a match and the building exploded in fire. When Morris attempted to leave through the front, he was prevented from doing so by the man with a shotgun, finally escaping though another exit, but not before suffering burns which eventually took his life.
Morris was taken to a hospital where he later died.
“His clothes had been burned off of him. His whole body was covered with third-degree burns,” Nelson said.
Apologizing for the subject matter being related while members of the Rotary Club were enjoying their noon meal, Nelson said, “these are the things that happened.”
Nelson said he thought the story he wrote about that case would be the only one. He said he got a call from Frank Morris’ granddaughter who recalled hearing grownups talking about what had happened.
She said, “I learned more from that very short article than I had known in my life.”
He said that bothered him and got him thinking.
“So, I just got to thinking about what if that was me, what if that was my grandfather? I would want someone to do something about it,” he said.
Nelson also recalled coming back from a football game when he was young and being just on the Franklin Parish line near Two Mile Inn where he experienced seeing the flaming wreckage of a vehicle hit by drunk driver.
“What bothered me so much was those men purposely set Frank Morris on fire,” he said. “How do you do that? I don’t care what your view is on civil rights, whether you are for or against it. I don’t care what your view is on anything. how do you do that to somebody else?”
“And what a crime it is on the rest of us that nothing has ever been done about it,” he added.
“So that was my inspiration,” Nelson said.
He said he did not know at the time that he would find even more cases of unsolved murders.
He said Morris lay in a hospital bed and lived long enough for the FBI to arrive in time for him to provide a physical description before Morris died on the fourth day.
Nelson shared other cases, including the fact that the Klan didn’t just attack black people, telling the story of a World War II veteran named Earl Hodges in Mississippi who had joined the Klan when his life was in a low state, then realizing what the Klan was about decided to turn his life around. He decided to quit the Klan and right what he could right in his life but had agreed to meet with Klan members for some unknown reason and was mortally wounded in a fight.
Nelson said a nephew of Hodges talked of the effect on his family, saying the nephew’s father went from a practical, no-nonsense man to one who had become obsessed with trying to figure out what happened to his brother, even to the point of consulting psychics.
Nelson said the nephew stated, “this gutted our family.” And that they were never the same for the rest of their lives.
Nelson said every family this happened to has suffered the same thing, saying a family who has had a family member killed and never knows who did it or why, it never leaves them.
A few years ago, LSU opened a cold-case program, which Nelson helped get started, and now students work on cold cases. One of those cases involved a situation in Ouachita Parish in which five men were shot. Through their investigations, the students uncovered evidence which was never reviewed by the FBI.
They also discovered that the man who said he did the shootings by himself, in self-defense, was actually not alone.
And Nelson posed questions from another point of view, “What about the kids that grew up in that households of the Klan? Why are some able by faith by God’s grace or good fortune, why are some able to turn themselves around, to reject the way their fathers lived? Because until we get to the root of the hate that will send a man out to Frank Morris’ shoe shop in the middle of the night and set a living human being on fire because he’s black, until we figure what causes that in households, we may solve a murder, we may figure out who did it, which is all important…But until we know how to escape this hate that you’re taught…And I will tell you that many of the Klan households were not pleasant places, were not places you would want to be. They were horrific.”
“So that hate lives on in some, but not in others,” he reflected.
He said he had seen many reconciliations between Klan children and victims because they want to (be reconciled). They want victim families to know that they are sorry.
“So that’s the work we were trying to do. We can avoid the issues, we can be apathetic about it,” Nelson said. “We’re all tired of this question that we still get, ‘why are you stirring all of this c..p up again?’ Those are the reasons that we are stirring all this up again,” he said.
He added, “The human toll is great on the families of the victims of course. The human suffering continues in some of the families where these Klansmen lived.”
Nelson went on not only to write stories for the Sentinel, but also to write books on the subject. In 2016, LSU Press published his first book: Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s. The book chronicles the Civil Rights Movement in this region and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, including a secret Klan cell known as the Silver Dollar Group, which Nelson linked to eight homicides
In the fall of 2021, LSU Press published his second book: Klan of Devils: The Murder of a Black Louisiana Deputy Sheriff. This work details the 1965 Klan attack on the first two Black deputies hired in Washington Parish, La. Klansmen in the back of a pickup shot up the deputies and their car as the officers patrolled the little town of Varnado, six miles north of Bogalusa. Deputy Oneal Moore, the married father of four daughters, was killed while his partner, Creed Rogers, was seriously injured but survived.
The FBI launched an investigation at that time and it became the most intensive bureau investigation into a Civil Rights-era homicide in Louisiana.
Since his retirement, Nelson continues to work with the cold case project at LSU in which student reporters go out into the field and investigate unsolved cold cases, particularly from the Civil Rights-era. He works on this project with Professor Chris Drew, who holds the Fred Jones Greer Jr. Endowed Chair and leads the Manship School's experiential journalism curriculum, including its Statehouse Bureau and its racial and criminal-justice reporting programs
The LSU student cold case team has won awards for its reporting. The student reporters have written on the 1960 killing of four Black men in Monroe by the white employer and on the Boyd brothers who grew up in a Klan household in Concordia Parish but rejected the beliefs of their father, who was a Silver Dollar Group Klansman.
Additionally, the students wrote a four-part series on the rise of the Deacons for Defense & Justice in the 1960s. The Deacons were an organization of Black men in Jonesboro, Bogalusa, Homer and Ferriday dedicated to the protection of their Black neighbors and civil rights workers from Klan attacks.