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

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'.

But his success may also have made him a target. Some resented his work for white women, regardless how innocent and fleeting their interactions. An informant would later tell the FBI that the virulently racist and brutal chief sheriff's deputy, Frank DeLaughter, had complained the night before the fire that Morris would not fix his boots without advance payment. (Deputy DeLaughter had stiffed the shop owner previously.)

Morris slept in a tiny room at the back of his store that winter night. Later, he would recall that a couple of white men came to the door, smashed a window and apparently poured gasoline around. He could not get out in time, the flames exploding around him.

The fire burned the clothes right off Morris, 51, along with much of his skin. He lingered four days in the hospital. In a morphine haze, he gave a fitful description of what had happened. A dozen times he told doctors and authorities he didn't know the arsonists.

Nelson has studied it from a lot of angles and believes Morris really didn't know. Among other things, the Klan in those days tended to send "wrecking crews" from outside an area, making them less likely to be caught meting out the ugliest kind of retribution. "Frank was the kind of man, I think, he would have wanted something to happen to the people who did this to him," the newsman said.

The big break in the case came late last spring. After about 20 interviews with former law enforcement figures, Nelson called on a former deputy, Bill Frasier. He asked Frasier if he had ever heard anything about the Frank Morris case. Frasier responded: "I had somebody tell me he did it." Nelson told him: "You got my attention now."

Frasier related how, decades before, he had been on a pipeline crew with his brother-in-law, a man named Leonard Spencer, who acknowledged attending Klan meetings in the 1960s. The former deputy asked the alleged former Klansman if he had ever killed anyone. Spencer allegedly replied: "We did accidentally one time."

Spencer's ex-wife and his son soon chimed in with similar information — tying not only Spencer but a ne'er-do-well Klansman and now deceased meth-head, O.C. "Coonie" Poissot, to the arson that night, according to the Sentinel article. The thugs allegedly planned to torch the store, learning only in the midst of the crime that Morris was inside.

Those revelations led the newspaperman, last summer, to Spencer's front door. Spencer, still red-faced and burly at 71, agreed to answer questions. A video shows him swaying gently on a porch swing as Nelson politely asks about the most hideous things — wrecking crews, late-night "projects" of long ago and the 46-year-old killing.

Spencer admitted only some knowledge about the Klan. He said he had never heard of Frank Morris and certainly had nothing to do with his killing. First the FBI and then the Justice Department asked the Sentinel to hold off on the story, lest it complicate their investigation.

The feds would not give details, nor would the local officials, who would put any suspect on trial. When the story finally was published in January on the Sentinel's front page, it carried a bold red headline: "A Suspect Revealed."

"I told Stanley the other day he is the hub in this and everybody else is just a spoke," said David Opperman, the assistant district attorney who is one of the prosecutors tending to the continuing grand jury proceedings. "He did the work that needed to be done."

Now Stanley Nelson wins awards. The son of the South for the first time has traveled to Washington, New York and beyond. When he speaks at conferences, he spins out bigger ideas about justice and reconciliation. But mostly he talks about putting one foot in front of another, like any man might.

"Once you saw who Frank Morris was and what this story was," he said, "it would have been almost immoral to walk away."

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey

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