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Wiley Hilburn: Editor seeks justice in small Louisiana town

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It was the 1960s with all the bitter racial ferment of the time. The Ku Klux Klan was accordingly stirring in the small northeast Louisiana town of Ferriday, on the Mississippi border.

The KKK was focused on a black shoe shop owner named Frank Morris. He had been successful in building a white and black customer base and was well-liked in the town. But the Klan did not like it that white women traded with Morris, 51, whose father started the cobbler’s business in the 1930s.

On Dec. 10, 1964, Morris’ business was set afire while he was inside. He died four days later, in agony, but not before being interviewed by the FBI. Transcripts of those interviews show he was asleep in the back room of his store when he heard glass breaking and walked to the front of the shop.

Morris then confronted two men he didn’t know outside the building. One brandished a shotgun, the other held a gas can, FBI records show.

The man with the shotgun aimed it at Morris’ face and kept him from leaving the shop as it was set on fire. Morris escaped out the back door, a human torch, where two Ferriday policemen took him to the hospital.

A nurse at the emergency room was distraught at seeing Morris. She said he was naked, burned all over his body, complained of feeling cold and said somebody had blown up his shop. He soon died.

Forty-three years later, in February 2007, the Justice Department released a list of more than 100 civil rights-era murders. One of the names on that list was Morris’. Stanley Nelson, 55, editor of the weekly Concordia Sentinel, would wind up writing about 150 stories about the incident “because Morris was from my hometown.”

Nelson’s final story identified a suspect and was ready to be published in December. It was delayed, however, until Jan. 12 at the request of the Justice Department while the FBI finished its investigation, which was officially reopened as a result of Nelson’s investigative journalism. A grand jury was convened in February.

Obviously, the murder of Morris might have languished and died as a cold case without the intervention of Nelson and the Sentinel

Last month, Nelson was rewarded for his efforts when he learned he’d earned one of the 2011 Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism. The award will be presented Wednesday at the University of Oregon.

The Payne Awards, a news release says, recognize journalists “who demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to ethical conduct, even when faced with economic, personal or political pressure.”

In conferring the honor, the judges recognized “the huge social, economic and political pressures on a small-town paper in the South to keep a racially motivated killing in the past.

“There was great personal risk, even death threats,” the judges continued. “There was no doubt of a direct economic impact (on the Concordia Sentinel), both in lost subscriptions and personal expense.”

In conclusion, the judges said Nelson’s work was “the definition of journalistic courage.”

In an era when investigative journalism has suffered for various reasons, Nelson has proved a single weekly newspaper still can profoundly affect the course of American justice.

Send comments to Wiley Hilburn by email to


Written by demon53

April 18, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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