Civil rights-era cold cases put back in spotlight

Some cases of racial violence during the civil rights era are recorded in history books and burned into the nation's memory. The 1964 death of Frank Morris is not one of them.

Morris, a black man who owned a successful shoe repair shop in Ferriday, La., was wounded and later died after his store was set afire in the middle of the night. According to FBI documents, Morris was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan.

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Now, decades later, a break in his case has attracted the attention of law enforcement officials and a dogged newspaper editor.

Since 2007, when Morris's name was placed on an FBI list of civil rights-era cold cases, Stanley Nelson, the editor of a weekly newspaper in Ferriday, has been searching for the answer to one question: Who killed Frank Morris?

Nelson reported last month that a 71-year-old local man has been implicated in the arson by the man's son, ex-wife and ex-brother-in-law. Nelson interviewed the man, who denied involvement.

Law enforcement officials would not comment on the case. But this month, Nelson wrote that he observed witnesses entering the local courthouse to appear before a county grand jury.

The renewed attention to Morris's case is part of an ongoing push by academics and Southern journalists working in partnership to dig up answers to many of the gruesome, racially motivated crimes committed decades ago.

And four years ago, the Department of Justice announced that it would renew investigations into civil rights-era slayings. Since then, 58 of the 110 cases the department identified have been closed. Six of the cases have been referred to state authorities for prosecution. Two have been prosecuted by the federal government. In many others, witnesses and suspected perpetrators of the crimes have died.

The lack of prosecutions has frustrated family members of the victims and some of the academics and Southern journalists working in conjunction with the Center for Investigative Reporting's Civil Rights Cold Case Project and Syracuse University's Cold Case Justice Initiative to find who committed the crimes.

"The opportunity to resolve these cases is now," said Nelson, who has worked with the cold-case groups. "That window has just about shut. I worry that there's not an urgency to solve these crimes. I don't think the nation understands that we still have time to do something about those crimes, but that chance is almost gone. "

Since the Morris case was reopened, a suspect from the 1960s has died and a key informant died the day the grand jury convened.

Jeff Hines, supervisory special agent in the FBI's civil rights unit, said the bureau is working hard to close the 52 remaining cases. "These aren't [cases where] we can run out and run down the road and see physical evidence. These are not quick cases, and we have to build these cases in order to ultimately try to prosecute a subject in the court of law," Hines said.

"A lot of people outside of law enforcement tend to look at it and say everyone knows who did it, but we have to prove it in a court of law."

Three of the cases will be spotlighted in the series "The Injustice Files," which began airing last week on the Investigation Discovery channel. The first focuses on Wharlest Jackson Sr., who was killed in 1967 just across the river from Ferriday in Natchez, Miss. A bomb was placed in Jackson's vehicle after he accepted a promotion, taking a job that had been held by whites at the tire company where he worked.

Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, in collaboration with the FBI, tells the story of Jackson's death through interviews with Jackson's contemporaries, his children and a renewed look at old FBI files.

The stories are intended to spur new leads in the investigations, Beauchamp said. "There's still this dark cloud that hovers over the FBI, especially when you talk about civil rights in this country and civil rights murders," he said. "People are afraid to talk to authority figures. As a layman, I can go in."

In the documentary, Beauchamp interviews a man who old FBI files indicate might have been involved in Jackson's death. The filmmaker also points out there is no physical evidence remaining from the 44-year-old crime scene.

Wharlest Jackson Jr., who often rode his bicycle down the road to meet his dad when Wharlest Sr. was late coming home from work, discovered his father's charred truck on the road. The memory still brings him to tears.

"We are hopeful that the FBI will bring this to justice," Jackson Jr. said. "If they don't, we are certain that God will."

 
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