This one apparently solved by the work of a local newspaper. Morris may have been murdered by the KKK for nothing other than the perspicacity of being a black man operating a successful business with both black and white customers.
Early on the morning of December 10, 1964, Frank Morris ran out of his shoe store, his clothes and skin on fire.
People who saw him in the hospital afterward said the African-American businessman was so badly burned they didn’t recognize him.
“Only the bottom of his feet weren’t burned. He was horrible to look at,” said the Rev. Robert Lee Jr., now 96.
Morris survived for four days before dying — long enough to tell the FBI that two men had broken into his store while he slept, smashed windows, doused the place in gasoline and told him: “Get back in there, nigger.”
Locals in Ferriday, the small Louisiana town where Morris lived and died, remember him as having both white and black customers, which was rare for black businesses in the segregated South in the days before civil rights. He would come out of his store onto the sidewalk so white female customers wouldn’t have to go inside alone.
No one has ever been charged with killing him. But Wednesday, more than 46 years after his death at age 51, a local newspaper has named two men it believes were part of a Ku Klux Klan “wrecking crew” that torched his store and murdered him.
One, Arthur Spencer, is still alive. The second, O.C. “Coonie” Poissot, died in 1992.
The Concordia Sentinel, based in Ferriday, reports Spencer’s son and the brother of his ex-wife both say Spencer told them he was involved in the killing.
Spencer’s ex-wife, Brenda Rhodes, says Poissot told her that he and Spencer were on the wrecking crew that burned Morris’s store.
“It came at a time of great lawlessness in this parish, when the Klan was in control of this parish — or if not in control, a great influence,” said Sentinel editor Stanley Nelson, using the Louisiana term for county.
The newspaper’s sources all indicated that the Klan wrecking crew didn’t necessarily expect Morris to be in the store when they burned it.
Spencer’s former brother-in-law, Bill Frasier, said he’d once asked Spencer if he ever killed anyone.
“We did accidentally one time,” Spencer said, according to Frasier.
Sentinel editor Nelson said many racially motivated killings in that era were done by people who might not have planned to commit murder — but should have known what they were doing.
“Almost all of the people that were killed in those days, no one set out to kill,” he said. Some beatings got too violent, for example, he said.
But, he added, “When you go to burn a building, you run the risk that a person is going to be there.”
Spencer himself told the newspaper he was not involved in the killing, and denied ever knowing Coonie Poissot.
He did not answer a phone call from CNN Wednesday and did not immediately respond to a voice mail message.
A woman at a second phone number listed as Spencer’s said he had never done anything wrong.
“Y’all digging up a dead black man? This happened 46 years ago,” she said, identifying herself as Betty Spencer, another ex-wife who divorced Spencer in 1969.
“I got two federal agents out at my place a couple weeks ago about a shoeshine man that got killed,” she said.
She said she would tell Spencer that CNN was trying to contact him.
Poissot, the other suspect named by the newspaper, became an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation later in life, giving agents information about drug traffickers in west Texas.
He never told the FBI that he or Spencer was involved in the Morris killing, and the FBI never considered Poissot a suspect, the Sentinel said, citing FBI records.
Cynthia Deitle, the head of the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit, did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment on the Sentinel story.
The newspaper has been investigating the case since 2007, when the FBI named the killing as one of 108 “cold cases” from the civil rights era it still hoped to solve. As of early 2010, the Frank Morris case was one of 14 on which the FBI was still seeking information.
Beverly Robertson, president of the National Civil Rights Museum, says it’s important for those cases to be resolved.
“Many families had loved ones that were stripped from them in the dead of the night and there has been no resolution, no healing, nothing to put them at ease,” she said.
“Most times when heinous crimes are committed, there is an investigation and some closure. Many of these families who lost loved ones have no closure — no closure at all,” she said.
That can tear people apart, she warned. “What creates hostility is that nobody was ever brought to justice. People may bear scars and hostility for the rest of their lives, and may transfer it to their children.”
And failing to pursue civil rights cold cases sends the message that the government doesn’t care, she said. “You need to feel that somebody feels that life was worth something,” she said.
“Every citizen is valuable and has something to offer this country. At least do due diligence and close the files,” she urged the government.
Sentinel editor Nelson interviewed Spencer in June 2010, Nelson said.
“He denies knowing anything about the Morris (murder) and he denies knowing this other Klansman (Poissot),” Nelson told CNN. But Spencer admitted being in the white supremacist KKK for two years, attending a dozen meetings and knowing secret passwords, Nelson said.
And he discussed wrecking crews, Nelson said. “They were hit squads that (were) assigned a job involving premeditated violence or arson,” he explained.
“Crews were pretty secretive. Many times most of the local Klan members would not know the identities of the wrecking crew. Only the (Klan) leaders and the crew would know anything about those wrecking crews,” he said, adding that Spencer seemed to have “inner knowledge” of crews and saying that made him suspicious.
The paper has been ready to publish its story for several months, but held it at the request of federal officials who said it could affect ongoing investigations.
But, Nelson said, “Not one time were we told we were wrong” about Spencer being one of the killers. “Officials from both the FBI and the Justice Department had every opportunity to tell us.”
Nelson has written more than 150 stories on civil rights cold cases including the Morris case, working with organizations including the Civil Rights Cold Case Project and the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University College of Law. Together they scoured FBI records obtained through Freedom of Information requests.
His motivation, he explained, is simple.
“We have an unsolved murder in this town,” he said. “If you believe in justice, there is no murder that should be unresolved.”