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Seeking Justice in Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases

by Suzanne Pekow

Rosa Williams grew up in Ferriday, La. in the 1960s. She says the code of conduct in her southern town was clear:

"We stayed in one place and white people stayed in one place, and we didn't associate with each other or nothing like that," Williams recalls.

Williams' grandfather, Frank Morris, apparently broke that code of conduct. He owned a shoe repair shop and was the only businessman in town who served both black and white customers. In the middle of the night on December 10, 1964, a group of men set fire to the shop, where her grandfather was sleeping in the back room. He died four days later from the third-degree burns that covered his body. Authorities suspected the Ku Klux Klan, and the murder was the subject of two F.B.I. investigations in the 1960s. But no one was ever charged with Frank Morris' murder.

His granddaughter Rosa Williams is 58 now, but when she talks about her grandfather it's as if she were still a 12-year-old girl grappling with his death.

"I don't understand why they chose to kill him, but they did," she says in a lilting, raw voice. "I didn't know that people would do things like that to someone just out of hatred."

The Morris case is one of about 100 civil rights-era violent crimes that have never been solved. Across the country, a small but vocal number of families are still seeking justice for crimes that have long been forgotten by people in the communities where they took place.

Williams didn't know the details about the night of her grandfather's murder until, as an adult, she read an article about it in her hometown's local paper. Stanley Nelson is the editor of that paper, The Concordia-Sentinel. Nelson has been reporting on civil rights "cold" cases since the United States Justice Department put out a list of victims in February 2007.

"I knew nothing about the [Frank Morris] case," Nelson says, even though he grew up in the region. "I thought I would write a story mentioning that it had been reopened, and maybe a follow-up. But after writing one, two, three stories, you know, I just was enormously interested in it and curious as to why it was never resolved."

Nelson has since written more than 150 articles investigating several decades-old cold cases. He's soft-spoken on the phone, with a polite, Delta drawl that belies a passion for pursuing the truth.

"I think of Frank Morris. I think of Rosa Williams, his granddaughter, and all of her life she has wondered: Who hated him so badly that they would just burn him alive like that? What in the world could he have done? I'm sure that will haunt her until she knows the answer."

Nelson spends nights and weekends poring over tens of thousands of F.B.I. files to find nuggets of information that might illuminate a past that he says many people wish would stay buried, even the victims' families. "Some of them look at it as 'I've had to move on with my life, and I've had to deal with that. And it's just too hard to go back and have to go through all of that again, and to talk about it again. I just don't want to do it anymore.'"

That's not how Rosa Williams feels. "I believe in my heart," she says, "there's a reason for the case to open up. I believe that there is going to be justice and I'm going to live to see this justice. I do believe that in my heart."

A handful of journalists and lawyers across the country have dedicated themselves to finding the truth about unsolved civil rights-era murders. They set up an organization called The Civil Rights Cold Case Project.

"The reason why these cases have gone unsolved and [victims'] lives taken in the first place was simply because black people's lives had no value in this society. And that is something that simply has to be corrected," says Paula Johnson, a law professor who works as an advisor with The Civil Rights Cold Case Project, and heads the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University.

It's not easy. Valuable witnesses are dying off every year. And Johnson says many of those still alive don't want to talk. They "may be concerned for their own reputation, but also for their own safety and well-being," she says. "Maybe they've got a comfortable life right now, and they just want go on into their twilight years and they don't want to stir stuff up."

But stirring stuff up is the mission of The Cold Case Project. Jerry Mitchell is a journalist whose award-winning investigative work has reopened decades-old murder cases in the South. When Mitchell was a young court reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in 1989, he got a tip about sealed files documenting the activities of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state-sponsored group that fought integration.

"When someone tells me I can't have something, I want it like a million times worse," says Mitchell, who's still with the Clarion-Ledger.

Mitchell developed his sources and eventually obtained some of the sealed files. He learned that after N.A.A.C.P. field secretary Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963, the state of Mississippi actively worked against the effort to convict his killer. The records show that while the state was prosecuting known Klansman Byron de la Beckwith in 1964, the Sovereignty Commission was secretly assisting the defense, trying to get Beckwith acquitted. Beckwith was tried twice for Evers' murder but both cases ended in mistrials when all-white juries failed to reach verdicts.

Mitchell published a story about the Sovereignty Commission's conspiracy and Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers, asked that the case be reopened. Beckwith was indicted in 1990 and convicted four years later - thirty years after the murder took place.

"There were all sorts of horrible things going on all across Mississippi," Mitchell says. "I've got some of the old Mississippi Highway Patrol reports and it's like every night there was another act of violence being carried out."

Mitchell says many of the civil rights cold cases still being investigated occurred in Mississippi because of the collusion between state government, law enforcement and hate groups.

"It's not just that these guys got away with murder, but the fact that everybody knew they were getting away with murder, and that's what really made them the height of injustice," Mitchell says. "Everybody knew Byron de la Beckwith killed Medgar Evers! His fingerprints were on the gun! It's not a big mystery."

Medgar Evers' murder is one of just a handful of civil rights-era cases to be reopened and successfully tried. But reporter Stanley Nelson says the Frank Morris case might be getting closer to a conviction. In January 2011, Nelson published a front-page story in the Concordia-Sentinel revealing new details about the murder that implicate a local truck driver and former Klansman. According to friends and relatives, Arthur Leonard Spencer was part of a Klan "hit squad' that was assigned to set fire to Morris' shoe shop in December 1964. Forty-six years later, Stanley Nelson got Spencer's son to go on record and reveal what he knew about the murder.

William "Boo" Spencer told Nelson he's been listening to his father talk about the killing - sometimes with regret - for nearly five decades. The F.B.I. has not said what will happen next, but Nelson knows what he thinks should happen. "The next natural step in my mind would be a grand jury," he says. Arthur Leonard Spencer denies he had anything to do with the Morris murder.

To read more about the Frank Morris case, please visit:

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