Frank Morris (in the apron and visor) standing in front of his shoe shop in Ferriday, La., during the 1950s. Courtesy of Concordia Sentinel/William Brown

The Question of Why

Journalist investigates cold cases involving KKK in Concordia Parish

by Kara Tucina Olidge

 

Stanley Nelson was born in Concordia Parish in the city of Ferriday, one year after the landmark United States Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which the Court declared that “separate but equal standards of racial segregation were unconstitutional.” Nelson would later work as reporter for the local paper, the Concordia Sentinel, where he became immersed in a series of local civil rights cold cases in 2007 as a result of the FBI’s 2006 Cold Case Initiative. His new book, Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s is the culmination of that work.

Devils Walking is an inside look at the ascent of one of America’s most notorious white supremacy organizations, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and its Silver Dollar Group (SDG), along with an investigation into a series of unsolved murders of African American men. The book illustrates how racism, power, mental illness and corruption kept several communities in Concordia Parish, terrorized with no means to exercise any rights of protection.

It arrives at a critical point in our nation’s history and consciousness. The nation faces issues of police corruption and brutality in African American communities, the reemergence of xenophobia and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The book also arrives not long after state and federal prosecutors announced that several civil rights cold cases, one of which is included in the book, would be closed. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood states “the evidence has been degraded by memory over time, and so there are no individuals that are living now that we can make a case on at this point.” Nelson echoes Hood’s point that time is not always on the side of justices, and, he adds, neither are people.

Book Devils Walking

Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s
by Stanley Nelson
320 pp. Louisiana State University Press,
Baton Rouge, 2016. $29.95

Nelson divides the book into four sections. The first section focuses on the year 1964. He recounts the gruesome murder of Frank Morris, who died from severe burns because he was forced to re-enter his place of business after it was set aflame by unknown perpetrators. The community was shocked by the incident and repeatedly asked why this happened to Morris. This question of “why” serves as a recurring theme in each section. Nelson notes that Morris’s murder, described as “one of the most horrific and troubling,” happened on the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

The murder serves as an entry point into the long and complicated history of corruption in Concordia Parish. Fueled by illegal gambling, prostitution and drinking that was as “old as the parish” itself, corruption provided the base for KKK activity. With Ferriday as the epicenter for illegal activity, Nelson details the relationship between the local mafia run by Carlos Marcello, the Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office (many who were involved with the KKK) and local Klansmen. He identifies the leading factions of the KKK, the Concordia Parish Original Knights (founded 1962), the Mississippi’s Original Knights (founded 1963) and the United Klans of America (founded in Louisiana in 1964), and details their involvement in several bombings, murders and beatings in response to the Freedom Summer of 1964. Nelson also describes the interior of the KKK as an organization fraught with competing agendas, including confrontations over leadership, violence and money. Complex internal tensions, Nelson argues, would lead to the emergence of the SDG, which acted as a renegade sect uncontrolled by the formalities of the KKK.

In the section dedicated to 1965, Nelson underscores the tensions in Ferriday and neighboring Natchez, Mississippi, and its impact on all involved. He describes the SDG’s growing use of intimidation and terror in Concordia Parish and the paranoia, particularly from SDG leader Red Glover, that leads to the car bombing of NAACP Natchez president George Metcalfe, harassment of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) members and violence towards fellow KKK and SDG members. In addition to the SDG’s anti-civil rights agenda, Nelson notes that local reaction to the efforts of community organizers were not always well received. The Concordia Sentinel described CORE as agitators whose strategies of establishing a civil rights agenda in Ferriday and integrating public spaces in Natchez increased tensions within the community. In addition to the SDG and local reactions to community organizers, Nelson looks at the stress between the goals of the organizers and the realities of the African Americans who lived in Ferriday and Natchez.

Nelson describes the interior of the KKK as an organization fraught with competing agendas, including confrontations over leadership, violence and money.

The third section, “1966,” documents the FBI and the Louisiana state police’s strategies to eliminate criminal activity in Concordia Parish. As their tactics intensified, Nelson posits, so too does SDG’s reign of terror. Ben Chester White, a 67-year-old farm hand, is murdered because a Klansman wanted to elevate his standing within the organization. Despite the overwhelming evidence against three Klansmen involved, none were convicted because of the corruption and the Klan’s influence in Concordia Parish.

Finally, Nelson argues that the rise of the Black Power Movement (BPM) and anti-war sentiments regarding America’s involvement in Vietnam diminished the nation’s interest in civil rights in the South. As attention to the South waned, Nelson points out that SDG continued its war against civil rights organizers in Concordia Parish, adding BPM leaders H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael to their list of enemies. He notes that SDG’s growing list of targets included NAACP member Wharlest Jackson. Targeted because of a job promotion, Jackson was killed in a car bombing on February 27, 1967. While the FBI intensified its investigations with the assistance of informants, the perpetrator of this crime, SDG leader Red Glover, was never convicted.

The chronological structure of Devils Walking serves to inform the reader of each act of violence as it coincides with the KKK’s and the SDG’s response to developments in the civil rights and Black Power Movements. Nelson historicizes each incident by describing the Jim Crow system in Concordia Parish and Natchez. Horrific acts of violence are recounted by remaining residents, survivors and retired state and federal law enforcement. Thus, Nelson’s book moves much like the cult-classic television drama “The Wire,” in which a community, terrorized by criminal elements and the responding bureaucracy, is analyzed from multiple sources.

Nelson provides an array of primary sources to demonstrate the injustices that took place in Concordia Parish. He cites reports from the FBI Civil Unrest Archives, records from the House Un-American Activities Committee records, and court cases from Franklin County in Mississippi, Monroe and Alexandria, Louisiana. To provide a context for the culture and environment of Concordia Parish in the 1960s, he includes a map of the parish with the names of victims and the locations of their murders, pictures of Klansmen and the victims and images of the violence that occurred. Though many people involved in the SDG murders have either passed away or were only willing to provide limited information, Nelson’s interviews stand out for how much the community did remember. The question of “why” remains a constant in their lives, passing on a painful legacy to their children and grandchildren.

While Nelson presents an objective history of the corruption and terror in Concordia, his commitment to documenting the murders of the forgotten speaks to his empathy for the victims and their families. There is no prejudice found in Devils Walking, only the facts of a tragic time in our nation’s history.

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Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D. is a scholar, arts and educational administrator and the Executive Director of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University.

 

 

 

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