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On the Media: A small-town reporter's big influence

A black businessman was burned to death in tiny Ferriday, La., in 1964. Justice may finally be served, thanks to the reporting of Stanley Nelson of the weekly Concordia Sentinel.

April 01, 2011|James Rainey

Ferriday, La. — The Mississippi fairly glides through this old cotton country, nothing if not strong and serene. But look a little closer at the big river and you'll notice an upwelling here and a dark eddy there. Something powerful, it appears, lurks beneath the surface.

In this hollowed-out little town of 3,511 people, a newspaperman named Stanley Nelson can be found most days clattering away on a decade-old Mac computer. He moves with a slow and purposeful calm. But he too has been roiling the waters.

Not long past New Year's Day — after four years of painstaking shoe leather, deep document dives and endless interviews — Nelson published a front page exposé like none the weekly Concordia Sentinel had ever seen.

In the story, three people talked about how an alleged former Klansman, their relative by birth or marriage, told them he was one of those responsible for burning a black man to death 46 years ago in what is remembered as one of the ugliest killings in this region's violent racial past.

Nelson's work has reignited hope in relatives of the slain man, Frank Morris, that they will finally see justice. It has injected new energy into a nearly half-century-old FBI investigation. It has grabbed the attention of the grand jury in Concordia Parish, where Ferriday is the second-biggest town.

After about 150 stories on the Morris case and other unsolved crimes of the 1960s, the determinedly modest Nelson has arrived as a star among a small cadre of civil rights "cold case" reporters. He's been embraced by the national media and a Canadian filmmaker. He gladdens the hearts of all journalists who still believe that one person with the right focus can change the world, if only a little.

Nelson, 55, will talk about all that if you ask him. But he would rather load you in his old silver Mercury Grand Marquis and drive you past the Shamrock Motel, the spot where a notoriously violent Klan set, the Silver Dollar Group, used to hatch its plans, or cruise the route sheriff's deputies took out of town late the night of Dec. 10, 1964, strangely just before men would set Frank Morris' shoe store ablaze.

When Nelson parks alongside the concrete slab where Morris' modest shop used to stand, he wonders about a lot of things. Did the killers use a match? Or did they light a wick atop a jug of gasoline? Did Morris, a successful businessman who fixed shoes for both black and white, have any idea who had come after him? The journalist goes over it again and again.

"I can't get it out of my mind. I cannot," said Nelson. "How in God's name can one human being do this to another?"

Nelson grew up in a neighboring parish. He was 9 at the time of the Morris killing. A child, the strife and anger of that time didn't really enter his life. But some grown-ups, then and now, purposefully turned away.

"Sometimes folks don't want to look in the mirror because they are scared to death of what they might see," said Sam Hanna Jr., whose family took over the Sentinel not long after the Morris killing and has supported Nelson's digging into the past.

As editor of the Sentinel and head of a news staff of three, Nelson for decades tended to local government, public works, historical features and business in a challenged community, where the healthiest-looking storefronts belong to Jo Jo's Drive-Thru Daiquiris and the parish work release office.

Nelson had never been particularly political, though he had a vague notion he wanted to do something bigger. His time came in February 2007, when the FBI published a list of unsolved civil rights slayings. Morris' killing was listed. So were other atrocities, like the death of Wharlest Jackson, his car bombed in 1967 after he had the audacity to take a supervisor's job at the Armstrong Tire & Rubber plant across the river in Natchez.

"Sometimes something falls into your lap," Nelson said, "and you realize how important it is and that it deserves your full attention."

In more than 30 years working at Hanna newspapers, he had learned the local police knew "everything." So he started with them, drawing up a list of 30 law enforcement officials, mostly retired. He began tracking them down, one by one. A lucky meeting with a Syracuse University law professor, who came to town writing a history, led to her getting the school to help root out archived records from the FBI and a key House committee.

Other reporting went in to tracking Klansmen and tracing a portrait of Frank Morris. He was not just anybody; he was one of the few African Americans who owned a thriving business in an economy dominated by whites. On Sundays, he had a gospel show on the radio. Years later, young men recalled Morris giving them their first jobs. In poor Ferriday, shoes had to last. Everyone went to Morris'.

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