US & Canada

Southern discomfort: Seeking the truth in Louisiana

Frank Morris (fourth from left) in front of his shoe shop in Ferriday, Louisiana during the 1950s. [Image courtesy of Concordia Sentinel and William Brown, 2010]
Image caption Frank Morris (fourth from left) was burnt alive when his shoe shop in Ferriday was torched

When Frank Morris ran out of his shop with his hair and clothes on fire, one witness recounted seeing the skin falling from the 51-year-old's body.

It was 1964 in Ferriday, Louisiana, when the Ku Klux Klan, and a violent offshoot of the movement known as the Silver Dollar Group, were active in this part of Louisiana.

The attack is widely believed to have been carried out by the Silver Dollar Group using several men that made up a "wrecking crew".

According to statements, Mr Morris was made to stay in his shop by a man with a shotgun, while others doused his business in petrol.

Despite his horrible burns, Frank Morris managed to live for four days before he died.

He never named or even described his attackers despite getting a good look at them.

Old wounds

Local reporter Stanley Nelson was just nine years old when Mr Frank - as he was known - was murdered.

"The rubble of the building was destroyed a few days after the fire and what you see here is what's left, and nothing has changed for 46 years," says the journalist from the Concordia Sentinel as he stands on the foundations of Frank Morris' business.

Stanley Nelson is now familiar with every detail of the case. He has spent four years studying Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records, talking to witnesses and ultimately trying to solve the murder.

But, in this small, tight-knit community it has opened up old wounds for some.

Image caption The rubble of the destroyed building has remained virtually untouched since the 1964 fire

"I had one lady call and she said: 'Just what do you think you're doing?'," says Mr Nelson, who has been working closely with civil rights groups.

"I said: 'What do you mean?' and she said: 'Every week you bring out these terrible stories, what do you hope to accomplish?' I said: 'I hope to find out what happened to Frank Morris and solve the murder'."

The FBI re-opened their investigation into Mr Morris's murder several years ago but it is one of dozens of so-called cold case murders carried out by the Klan that, to this day, remain unsolved.

That does not surprise 66-year-old Robert Lee III, a friend of Frank Morris and who still lives in Ferriday.

"This man was our friend and he was murdered only because he was black," says Mr Lee, who was serving in Vietnam when the killing took place.

Image caption Robert Lee says his friend was murdered only because he was black

"You got all these cases that nobody ever tried to solve and ya'll just let it go. Murder has no statute of limitations and some of those people are still alive."

Not only are some of the people still alive but Stanley Nelson believes he has tracked down one of the killers. The rest of the "wrecking crew", he believes, has now died.

Quest for understanding

He will be passing all the details of his investigation to the FBI but there is another perhaps more pressing problem.

"We just don't have time," says Stanley who is keen to start investigating other cases.

"I've seen witnesses die, I've seen suspects die just within the last four years. This is a race, it's a race to get this work done. In another year or two I'm afraid its going to be over."

For many residents of Ferriday, these cases mean facing a dark past that still lives on in the memory of many people, especially those in the African American community.

Leland Boyd, who now lives in Texas, remembers his father being an active member of the Silver Dollar Group.

"I was there for several of the cross burnings," says Mr Boyd, who has received death threats for talking about the Klan's past.

"I helped build the crosses as a young boy. We were country folks and we built stuff ourselves. The message from the burning crosses was to show a symbol of Protestant white Christianity."

Mr Boyd is now actively helping Stanley Nelson with his investigations.

He says that after his school was integrated there was a defining moment when he fell into a black student and cut himself.

"There was a moment where we just looked at each other and acknowledged that we couldn't tell our blood apart," says My Boyd.

"Then we became friends. I even invited him to my wedding but he declined because he didn't want trouble and he knew how angry it would make my father."

Stanley Nelson will continue to investigate the cases in his region and that could take years.

The FBI would not comment on his findings so far but say they are determined to solve as many cases as they can.

"Who would not want a man who was killed that way see his family get justice," says Mr Nelson.

"It's a quest for understanding. How could those type of feelings exist, where was the community when that happened?"

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