A MURDER, THEN YEARS OF FEAR
EXPOSING THE KLANSMEN WHO SET A DEADLY FIRE
DEC. 10, 1964 FERRIDAY, LA.
Rosa Morris Williams kept quiet about her grandfather’s tragic death for nearly 40 years. “I didn’t get into any details about it with my own children because they still live there,” says Rosa, who later moved away. “I didn’t want any harm to happen to them.”
Williams was 12 when Klansmen broke into the shoe-repair shop where Frank Morris, 51, slept in the back. They splashed gasoline and torched it. Although Rosa heard the explosion from her home early that December morning, she learned it was her grandfather’s store from a friend-never from police. All she knew was that her “Papa Frank,” who died four days later, never named his attackers. “I believe in my heart he was trying to protect me and my brother,” says Rosa, now 57 and living in Nevada; she and her brother Nathaniel, then 10, were Morris’ only relatives in the area.
The store’s location is one that Rosa’s daughter, Darlene Morris, 36, passed often without ever knowing its link to her own heritage. “I’ve lived in this city all my life, and I never heard about it,” says Darlene. Then three years ago a local newspaper wrote about the tragedy, and Rosa poured out the story. “I try not to have hatred in my heart for anyone or for what they’ve done,” Darlene says. “Everything happens for a reason. I’m just waiting to find out that reason.”
THE CASE THAT STARTED IT ALL
If it weren’t for a chance phone call, the Cold Case Justice Initiative might not have happened. Syracuse University professor Janis McDonald went to Louisiana in March 2007 to research a book on plantation slave life. “People kept saying, ‘You need to see this newspaper reporter Stanley Nelson,’ ” she recalls. So she did. While chatting with Nelson, editor of the Condordia Sentinel, a weekly paper in Ferriday, La., he got a return call from an FBI agent on the Frank Morris case, prompting him to tell McDonald that Morris’ granddaughter was looking for help solving his murder. “We just instantly knew this was something we were meant to do,” she says. McDonald and her colleague Paula Johnson sent law students digging through thousands of pages of documents. They found new witnesses in the Morris case, which led to the appointment of a special agent by the FBI and a pledge by the U.S. Attorney for a full review. Their work has prompted the FBI to expand its inquiries into other civil rights era cases of the murdered and missing. So far their push has yielded no new criminal convictions, though the U.S. Department of Justice says it has closed 56 of 109 cold cases. But McDonald says the government has not done enough, and there are more witnesses to be found. “We have to keep putting their feet to the fire,” she says. “We are not going away.”
SHOT DEAD FOR BEING BLACK
A SON’S FIGHT TO KNOW THE TRUTH
MARCH 23, 1964 JACKSONVILLE, FLA.
She was walking along the side of a road, searching for the wallet she’d lost on her way from the grocery store, when someone in a speeding black Plymouth fired at Johnnie Mae Chappell, 35, hitting her in the belly. Testimony later revealed the occupants were looking for a black person to shoot. “If it was four months earlier, I would have been in her stomach,” says her son Shelton. His only photograph of his mother shows her at the morgue, his father peering down sadly at her lifeless body. Now 46 and the youngest of 10 kids who were scattered to juvenile shelters and foster homes, Chappell longed to know the full story. “It took everything from us,” he says. A jury convicted one white man of manslaughter, but charges were dropped against three others for lack of evidence. A 1996 reunion of surviving siblings-minus their father, who died without answers-attracted a former detective who had worked on the case. The family then sued the sheriff’s office for what the officer described as “the deceitfulness, the lies, the cover-up,” Shelton says, but lost. “We have a system, and we’re trying to abide by it,” he says, “but the system did not work for us.”
A BLOODY CAR-BOMBING-AND A COVER-UP
THEIR FATHER’S KILLING WAS CALLED “ACCIDENTAL”
FEB. 27, 1967 NATCHEZ, MISS.
Wharlest Jackson Jr. was only 8 when he jumped on his bicycle to investigate a loud explosion. “People tried to keep me from seeing, but I saw what happened. I can never forget seeing my father’s body destroyed in that way.” Wharlest Sr., the treasurer of the local NAACP, had weeks earlier accepted a new position at Armstrong Tire & Rubber Co., for a 17-cent pay raise. On that rainy February night, a bomb attached to the frame of his Chevy pickup exploded as he headed home to his five children and wife. The fatal blast was labeled on his death certificate as “accidental,” but his family always believed it was a retaliation against him for taking a job previously held by white men.”The bottom of my heart just fell out,” says daughter Denise Ford, 53, of reading the certificate decades later. The FBI initially focused on Klan members, but no one has ever been charged. “Although the Klan was wrong,” says Wharlest Jr., now 52, “I had to let go of the desire to retaliate in order to be the man my father expected me to be.”