Cold Case Justice Initiative brings families to SU campus, hosts Mavis Staples concert

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 03/06/10More articles

When Frank Morris was forced back inside his shoe repair shop at gunpoint in Ferriday, Louisiana, on December 10th, 1964, assailants suspected of membership in the Silver Dollar Group (a violent cell of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan) doused the building in gasoline and set it on fire. Morris’ murderers have never been prosecuted, but his granddaughter Rosa Williams – who was 12 when this happened – traveled from Las Vegas to speak at Syracuse University last week about how their family and community have fared since.

Williams spoke as part of “It’s Never Too Late for Justice,” held on the top floor of the Schine Student Center late last Saturday afternoon. In 2007, law professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald got involved in resurrecting the long-dormant investigation of her grandfather’s death at the request of the Ferriday “Concordia Sentinel” editor Stanley Nelson. Since then, the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) has become the two law professors’ full-time project. To close out this year’s Black History Month at Syracuse University, CCJI brought several family members, activists, and journalist Nelson to Syracuse for the afternoon panel. Immediately afterward everyone descended two floors to the club-like Underground for “We’ll Never Turn Back,” the dinner-hour concert by legendary Gospel and Blues singer Mavis Staples.

The night before, some students had camped out at Carrier Dome to be first in line for tickets to the SU-Villanova game, and a steady stream of basketball fans flowed up the hill past Schine toward the Dome all day long. So law professor Paula Johnson sounded relieved and pleased before the panel started. “Thank you so much for coming!” she kept saying, making her way across the back of the room and heading for the podium and speakers’ table. The crowd had arrived in a rush in the last minutes before three o’clock, over 300 people filling the rows of folding chairs and lining the walls – from kids to older people, campus folk and townies. Nancy Larraine Hoffman was there, who’s carried on her Civil Rights Connection project of taking area high schoolers into the Deep South, despite no longer having a State Senate seat to fund the yearly trek. City Court Judge Langston McKinney came, speaking from the floor during the Q&A with such force about the country’s need for truth and reconciliation on these issues that you got a sudden glimpse he won’t spend his impending retirement golfing. SU’s Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who might reasonably have been double or triple-booked for various events that day, remained for the duration and then trooped along with the crowd down to the Underground afterward for the concert too.

The CCJI has evolved considerably from that first summer project, put together in March 2007. Johnson and McDonald developed and teach a course for law and journalism students titled Investigating and Re-opening Civil Rights Era Murders. They also have directed the work of over 50 law students in responding to more requests from families and examining more than 70 similar unsolved cases identified by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Urban League. In 2008, CCJI became one of 19 designated Syracuse University Chancellor Leadership Projects, and extended leaves granted by the Law School mean that Johnson and McDonald, who have also created ties with law schools at Howard University, Catholic University and the University of Alabama, can focus full-time on CCJI for another two years.

Last week’s speaker event focused on three particular cases. Besides the Frank Morris murder, CCJI uncovered lost FBI investigation files on the disappearance of Joseph Edwards over the July 4th weekend in 1964 near Vidalia, Louisiana. Wharlest Jackson, Jr. and his wife traveled from Natchez, Mississippi, where his father was killed when a bomb was planted in his Chevy truck after he accepted a promotion to a pay grade at the local Armstrong tire factory that had always been reserved for white workers. Last week’s event was the 43rd anniversary of Jackson’s 1967 death; Wharlest Jackson, Jr., who was nine at the time, was the first person to arrive on the scene after the explosion.

“Our work begins and ends with the families,” said Johnson in her opening remarks.

Rosa Williams shared memories of her grandfather and her conviction tat he had died to keep her and her brother safe, and said she felt there would eventually be some closure “now that someone is helping.”

Wharlest Jackson, Jr. had difficulty speaking at first and was joined at the speakers’ table by his wife Cynthia.

“My father was my role model,” he said, “and he was snatched from me in a cruel way. I want to speak about post-traumatic stress. No one did or said anything about who was involved in this for over 4o years. This has been very hard for me.”

Cynthia Jackson said that her husband’s father “was killed for a 17 cents an hour raise. He was a kind man and a good man and he deserved that raise. They went around and said if anyone takes that job he’ll be killed. His wife heard the explosion in her kitchen because the plant wasn’t far away. This has been very hard for those five children. Normally we have a celebration on this date but we are glad to be here with you. They parked the truck and left it there, with the door and the seat blown out. My husband used to go visit the truck and the next day he found a shoe that still had flesh in it and took it home to his mother. Even the death certificate said it was ‘accidental.’”

Jackson added that his mother could have collected double the life insurance on his father had the death been ruled murder instead of accidental, an issue Johnson said has been significant in some of these cases. She remarked, “People ask us why are we investigating these cases 40 years later, when it’s all in the past? They are still living with it. There is nothing ‘cold’ about these cases. This is about people in this room today. It is important for you to understand the imperative for justice anytime that officials try to put these cases on the back burner.”

An audience member asked what families were told after the murders. Rosa Williams said, “The FBI spoke with my grandmother. My mother came home from Las Vegas and she went to the hospital and they told her about his burns.”

“We weren’t told anything!” said Wharlest Jackson, Jr. “The locals didn’t say anything. The FBI told us they were ‘assisting’ the local law so they didn’t tell us either. They said they lost the records.”

Janis McDonald, who said CCJI had found 7000 pages on Jackson’s father’s case, answered, “We can give you the records.”

Johnson elaborated, “The family members rarely were informed whether there was an investigation. Only in recent years have people found some of this information. It’s like archeology – we are digging for remnants. Some of this information is in old dusty boxes where no one has looked in decades. People say there was nothing and when we and our students look, there is something. By and large, these are small towns. There are people who know or helped commit these acts or harbored people. These families have to live among them. But we will find it.”

Another audience member asked if there has been resistance from local authorities to new investigations.

“Yes,” said Johnson. “We are lawyers and professors, we’re not prosecutors. But we and our students can investigate. We try to give this to federal authorities so they can use it. Now there’s no reason not to act on it. When we started Frank Morris’ case it wasn’t on the front burner for them, but they’ve added people to it and now the case is moving. We’re talking to them as lawyers, knowing what lawyers need to know.”

The second panel comprised journalist Stanley Nelson, who’s written over 150 articles in the “Concordia Sentinel” on these cases; long-time Ferriday resident Robert Lee, who knew the victims and wanted to participate in the new investigations; and Margaret Burnham, former judge and law professor at Northeastern University, who directs the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Program, working with cases where the statutory limit has ended.

“I knew each of these people who were killed,” said Robert Lee, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran. “We have to do some time travel here. This is American history – it’s not a condemnation of the white race. We have a fundamental breakdown in respect for law and miscarriage of justice has a ripple effect. Mr. Morris and my mother were schoolmates. On his Sunday Gospel radio show, he played ‘Waiting for My Son to Come Home’ for my mother when I was in Vietnam. He was doused down with gasoline. Joe Edwards was skinned alive, butchered up and thrown in the river – he was dating a white woman.”

Janis McDonald added, “When the FBI investigated, people couldn’t say. It was a death warrant. There were two 13-year-old boys who saw three white men go into Frank Morris’ store and their mother told them, ‘You can’t say.’ One of them is still alive.”

Stanley Nelson began by saying, “I’m glad Robert Lee is on my side of this. Janis and Paula have become like daughters to me. You here in Syracuse should be proud of them. I wrote my first story on Frank Morris within two hours of hearing about him. After my second or third story, Rosa called me and said, ‘I’ve learned more in three articles than I’ve known for 40 years.’ Frank Morris ran a shoe shop and he developed a clientele of both black and white people and he was respected. He had money in the bank. He was kind of between worlds. It’s still not clear why he was killed. In 1964 he made somebody mad. He lived for four days – the FBI interviewed him and he would not reveal who it was. Wharlest Jackson earned his promotion and he took it knowing full well what he was doing. He had a premonition. For me as a white man, to be writing about these things, there’s a complex set of emotions. A lot of these Klansmen were alcoholics – there are some of their children who have rejected what they did. The thing about Rosa and the others is, they don’t hate. But suspects and witnesses are dying – this is truly a race against time.”

Downstairs, the Underground seemed so right for Grammy-winner Mavis Staples and her back-up – three singers and four musicians – that you were kind of glad to be packed in there instead of upstairs in the more staid and airy Schine Auditorium, where the concert was originally scheduled.

After sizzling versions of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “Too Close to Heaven to Turn Around,” “Wade in the Water,” “Down in Mississippi,” and “This Little Light of Mine,” Staples recollected a crossing of paths.

“Back in the 60s,” she said from stage, “we were on tour, my sisters and I and our father, Pop Staples, and we happened to be in Montgomery, Alabama, and we didn’t have to sing until night. Pop said, ‘This man, Martin, is here, so we’ll go to his eleven o’clock service. Afterward Pop said, ‘If he can preach it, we can sing it.’ So we began to write freedom songs. The first one was ‘March Up Freedom’s Highway’ for the Selma march. And this one – ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?’ – was Martin’s favorite. He would ask my father if we were going to do his song.”

Staples treated us to that song too, and a look over at the panelists, now in the first row center, just feet from Staples, gave you a clue to what Johnson meant when she’d said, “We wanted to plan this day to teach something about how the movement happened, but more than just information – how it sustained itself.”

See a video clip below of CCJI's first press conference at Lubin House in NYC. Read more about the work of CCJI online at A shorter version of this article appeared in the print edition of the 3/4/2010 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Cold Case Justice Initiative, Syracuse University Law School, Mavis Staples, Civil Rights era unsolved murders, Paula Johnson, Janis McDonald, Frank Morris, Wharlest Jackson, Margaret Burnham, Mavis Staples, Why Am I Treated So Bad?
EDITION: The Eagle

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