≡ Menu

Alabama House Approves Apology for Recy Taylor

The Alabama House made an historic move Tuesday evening towards a state apology to Recy Taylor, 91, who was gang raped by 7 white men in Abbeville, Ala., in 1944. The AP reports:

The House on Tuesday approved by an apparent unanimous voice vote a resolution that expresses “deepest sympathies and solemn regrets” to Recy Taylor….

Her 74-year-old brother, Robert Corbitt, who still lives in Abbeville, said he was happy his sister was finally going to get what she wanted — an apology.

The strongly worded resolution said the failure of Alabama law enforcement and the court system to prosecute the crimes “was, and is “morally abhorrent and repugnant.”

It was introduced by freshman Rep. Dexter Grimsley, D-Newville. It now goes to the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, who also represents Abbeville, said he expects it to pass.

“The most important thing is to say we are sorry and we hope you are doing well. … It’s important we move on in Alabama,” Beasley said.

Grimsley’s resolution was spurred by revelations of Taylor’s story by Danielle McGuire in her book “At Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance,” published last fall, and by a Change.org petition to Alabama officials, launched in February after The Root’s Cynthia Gordy reported that Taylor, now living in Florida, and her brother wanted the state of Alabama and the city Abbeville to apologize for officials’ inaction and obstruction of justice. After Colorlines broke the news earlier this month that Grimsley was planning to introduce a resolution, signatures skyrocketed on the petition. Grimsley, Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock and other local officials held a press conference, where they made personal apologies to Taylor and declared that formal apologies were on the way.

Taylor’s case has for decades lingered as an icon of the sexual violence black women suffered from white men in the South. At the time, her case became a rallying point for a movement to end impunity for that violence. Today, federal law enforcement officials have reopened dozens of civil rights era murders, but have not revisited the rapes and sexual assaults that went un-prosecuted.

Grimsley’s resolution reads in part (scroll down for full text):

WHEREAS, this deplorable lack of justice remains a shame for all Alabamians; now therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.

Grimsley “now vows to take the official House resolution to her Florida doorstep,” according to Change.org’s Alex DiBranco.

“I’m excited for the family,” Grimsley told Change.org following the vote. “I’m excited that I could have the resolution introduced and at least get it through the House, that I had the opportunity to do something for a resident of my district and a former resident of my district.”

“It’s not ‘justice,’ but a big step and all she’s asked for,” The Root’s Gordy tweeted this morning. I concur—though it’s not quite all Recy Taylor has asked for. There is still no news regarding an official apology from the city of Abbeville or from Henry County.

*This article has been altered since publication.

(Cross-posted at Colorlines.)



WHEREAS, on September 3, 1944, in the small Town of Abbeville, Alabama, Recy Taylor, a young Black mother was walking home from church with her companions when she was confronted by a car of seven white men; the men forced Ms. Taylor into the car at knife and gunpoint, drove off, and six of the seven men brutally raped her in a deserted grove of pine trees; and

WHEREAS, Taylor’s younger brother, Robert Corbitt, of Abbeville, said he remembers the day his sister was raped 67 years ago like it was yesterday, saying the police tried to blame his sister, and the family was harassed so that he was not allowed to play in the front yard; and

WHEREAS, an all white, all male grand jury failed to bring any charges for indictment; and then Governor Chauncey Sparks ordered a second investigation, and the grand jury again failed to indict; and

WHEREAS, the case got the attention of NAACP activist Rosa Parks, who interviewed Taylor in 1944 in Abbeville and later recruited other activists to create the “Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor”; and

WHEREAS, in an interview last year with the AP, Recy Taylor, who now resides in Florida, said she eventually gave up trying to bring charges against the men; and

WHEREAS, this deplorable lack of justice remains a source of shame for all Alabamians; now therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That it is the specific intent of the Legislature that reparations shall not be considered or made regarding past actions of the government of the State of Alabama concerning the lack of prosecution of the crimes committed against Recy Taylor, and that this resolution shall not be used or construed in any manner whatsoever as support for such reparations.

{ 1 comment }

Recy Taylor Gets a Personal Sorry, But No Apology From Alabama

Recy Taylor, 91, in her home in Winter Haven, Fla., in October 2010. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File

Recy Taylor, 91, in her home in Winter Haven, Fla., in October 2010. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File

Yesterday, Abbeville city and Alabama state officials held a press conference at the Henry County Courthouse to express their sympathy for Recy Taylor, 91, a former Abbeville resident who was gang raped there by seven white men in 1944. But the officials made clear the apologies were personal rather than on behalf of the city or state. That leaves Taylor and her family still awaiting some modicum of justice for an assault that, then and now, has become a symbol for untold numbers of rapes southern black women suffered throughout the Jim Crow era.

Last week, I reported for Colorlines on a building effort, led by Taylor’s family, to win an apology for the failure to meaningfully investigate and prosecute her assailants.

Local TV station WTVY reports on Monday’s press conference:

Public officials are now giving the victim and her family personal apologies for the events of that era.

“I open my heart up and say that I am deeply sorry for what happened,” says AL Representative Dexter Grimsley.

“Anytime one of our residents whether past or present feels pain or feels victimized we certainly want to offer that apology,” says Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock.

Following the press conference, Taylor’s brother Robert Corbitt told me by phone, “While I’m pleased with the mayor’s apology, it’s nothing official. We were looking for an official one from the city, the state and the county.”

“I did hear the representative say he was gonna get a resolution in to the state,” Corbitt said, “but I never heard the mayor say that he was going to present it to the city council. He just said it must come from the city council. He never said anything about when he was gonna do it.”

State and city governments are often reluctant to issue official apologies for past injustices for fear that it will leave them vulnerable to civil suits.

Rep. Grimsley reaffirmed Monday his intent to introduce a House resolution calling for a state apology to Recy Taylor “before the session is out.” The current legislative session started March 1 and goes about another six weeks, Grimsley said.

Recent overtures by city and state government officials towards Recy Taylor and her family follow mounting public interest in Taylor’s case, starting with the September 2010 publication of Danielle McGuire’s book, “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance,” which tells Taylor’s story.

Recy Taylor and Robert Corbitt first publicly conveyed their wishes for city and state apologies in a Feb. 9 article about Taylor by Cynthia Gordy in The Root. On Feb. 16, after reading Gordy’s article, Change.org editor Alex DiBranco launched a petition asking Alabama government officials for city and state apologies to Taylor. Corbitt has since put the petition under his name.

After 12 days, the Change.org petition gathered 1,000 signatures. When Colorlines broke the news on March 16 that Grimsley is planning to introduce a resolution for a state apology, the petition was up to 2,100 signatures. Signatures more than doubled in the first 24 hours after the Colorlines article and additional coverage by the AP and the Root. At this writing, the petition has more than 7,100 signatures.

Grimsley has told the AP that he became interested in Taylor’s case partly because of the Change.org petition.

(Cross-posted at Colorlines.)


The Update

This morning in an op-ed at the Anniston Star, I reported that an apology to Recy Taylor may be forthcoming soon from the city of Abbeville and Henry County, AL.

Last Wednesday, I reported for Colorlines.com that state Rep. Dexter Grimsley, D-Newville, wants Alabama to issue a formal state apology to Recy Taylor, 91, who was abducted and raped at gunpoint by seven white men in Abbeville on Sept. 3, 1944.

“The circumstances merit it,” Grimsley said recently. “It’s something that should be done. Recy Taylor found herself in a situation that wasn’t responded to, the way that the law would respond to something today.”

Now it appears that an apology from Henry County and the southeast Alabama city of Abbeville may come as soon as Monday, but it is unclear whether the state will take part. In a follow-up interview last Thursday, Rep. Grimsley said he would hold a press conference with Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock and County Commission Chairman Joanne Smith and “present a formal letter to the family.”

Asked if the apology would also be on behalf of the state, Grimsley said, “We haven’t addressed that level yet."

Recy Taylor in her Florida home (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Henry County Public Information Officer Chad Sowell has told me on the phone that there will be a press conference tomorrow, Monday, March 21, 10:30 am Central Time, at the Henry County Courthouse.

Officials scheduled to be there are Alabama State House Representative Dexter Grimsley, Mayor Ryan Blalock and members of the Abbeville City Council.

Whether an apology will be issued to Recy Taylor tomorrow has not been verified. Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock and Alabama Representative Dexter Grimsley have asked Recy Taylor's brother Robert Corbitt to attend the press conference, and he has told me that he plans to be there.

Margaret Burnham stated the importance of an apology.

“Clearly there should be an apology from the state here as well as the county,” said Professor Margaret Burnham, director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Program at Northeastern University School of Law. “Each failed to pursue the investigation aggressively and promptly, and more generally afforded utter impunity to white men who raped black women. Such a statement would not only honor Recy Taylor and her family for their courage and tenacity in seeking justice, but it would speak to scores of victims who similarly suffered in silence.”

Other Questions

Even if Recy Taylor gets her due from Alabama officials, many questions remain about how countless other cases of decades old racially motivated rapes will be addressed. There are some states where the FBI could play a role.

The FBI’s role

Though Alabama and five other Southern states have no statute of limitations on rape, only civil rights-era homicides of African Americans — mostly of men — have commanded the official attention of the FBI and other federal and state officials.

The six Southern, formerly segregated states with no statute of limitations on the crime of rape are: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Yet, local police and county sheriffs rarely have the staff or the budgets to conduct such investigations. Further, officials in small communities may lack motivation because they would be investigating their own relatives or the politically powerful.

When it comes to decades-old racially motivated deaths, the FBI can investigate cases even when there is no federal jurisdiction. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act of 2008 directs the FBI to investigate and do community outreach with the express purpose of supporting or encouraging state and local action.

Asked if the FBI could play a similar role in addressing decades-old racially motivated rapes, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said, “The public is always welcome to report an allegation of a crime to their local FBI office, where it will be reviewed to determine if a federal violation exists.”

No special consideration would be made. “We would handle [it] as we do every other allegation of a crime: on its own merits,” Allen said.

Testimony of black women

In an e-mail interview, Professor McGuire says her research “covers about 64 cases of white on black rape from 1940 to 1975 and is not exhaustive in any way.

“I found black women’s testimonies of sexual violence everywhere I looked.”

Does Professor Burnham think the Department of Justice ought to address civil-rights era, racially motivated rapes in states like Alabama?

“The Emmett Till Act itself only covers murders,” Burnham said. “But the animating spirit of the act is to encourage law enforcement and courts to redress the racial wrongs that locked black crime victims out of the justice system during the mid-20th century. Certainly, if opportunities for prosecution remain open, the Justice Department should play a role."

(Cross-posted at the Civil Rights Cold Case Project)


Recy Taylor’s 67 Year Quest for Justice

Recy Taylor, Willie Guy Taylor, and their child, Joyce Lee Taylor (Courtesy of the Chicago Defender)

My latest is out on Colorlines. Here's an excerpt:

At 91, Recy Taylor May Finally See Alabama Acknowledge Her 1944 Rape

Recy Taylor was abducted and raped at gunpoint by seven white men in Abbeville, Ala., on Sept. 3, 1944. Her attack, one of uncounted numbers on black women throughout the Jim Crow era in the South, sparked a national movement for justice and an international outcry, but justice never came. Now, decades later, there may finally be some solace for Taylor, 91, as Alabama state Rep. Dexter Grimsley tries to make his state issue a formal apology.

Reached by phone on Monday, Grimsley confirmed he is drafting a resolution for a state apology to Taylor. “The circumstances merit it,” he said. “It’s something that should be done. Recy Taylor found herself in a situation that wasn’t responded to, the way that the law would respond to something today.”

The FBI is currently investigating dozens of civil rights-era murders, mostly of men. But the sexual violence visited upon women like Taylor has never commanded the official attention of the FBI and other federal and state officials who have tried to right the crimes of our past.

“From slavery through the better part of the 20th century, white men in the segregated South abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity and often impunity,” explained historian Danielle McGuire, whose new book “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance” was the first history of white-on-black sexual violence and black women’s organized resistance to it. “They lured black women and girls away from home with promises of work and steady wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gunpoint while traveling to or from home, work, church or school; and sexually harassed them at bus stops, grocery stores and in other public spaces.”

New awareness of Taylor’s case, and of the pervasiveness of many more cases like it, has begun attracting new bands of supporters who want justice for past crimes of sexual violence against black women—from members of an online social network for social change, to the NAACP Alabama State Conference, to a black lawyers’ association in Michigan, to individual letter writers and callers from all over the country who have contacted Taylor’s family.

(Read the rest at Colorlines.)


If you're following me on Twitter or Tumblr, you know that I've been heavily preoccupied with the situation in Wisconsin.

So much is at stake for Wisconsin and the country, and the labor movement legacy runs deep in my veins.

But I'd like everyone to take their eyes off Wisconsin for long enough to take in what is happening to Detroit, Michigan.

(AP) DETROIT - State education officials have ordered the emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools to immediately implement a plan that balances the district's books by closing half its schools. The Detroit News says the financial restructuring plan will increase high school class sizes to 60 students and consolidate operations.

I haven't been watching the situation in Detroit closely enough to understand the ins and outs of the underlying politics, but this simply cannot be justified. Half the schools? 60 student high school classes? I don't see how one can even call this policy.

The crisis in Detroit has captured the attention of the White House, but rather than devise an immediate response to effect some semblance of stability for Detroit's young people (not to mention for the untold number of teachers and staff who will presumably lose their jobs), US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has declared that Detroit's best hope is to compete with other districts for a new round of so-called "Race to the Top" funds.

President Barack Obama and Duncan are pushing for a third round of his hallmark Race to the Top competition, outlined last Monday in the president's budget proposal.

Unlike the first two rounds in which states competed for federal dollars based on education reforms (Michigan lost in both rounds), the proposed $900 million third round would be targeted directly at school districts.

"It would be a huge, huge, huge opportunity for Detroit," Duncan said. "We would love to see them put forward a fantastic application. Nothing would please me more."

DPS, steeped in a more than $300 million deficit, wants to compete.

"Detroit Public Schools would look forward to an opportunity to apply for and win Race to the Top funds if another round is approved by Congress," DPS spokesman Steve Wasko said in an e-mail....

"The district has made real progress," Duncan said. "(But) the district frankly has an extraordinarily far way to go. If you look at some of the results from different cities around the country, Detroit's at the bottom in a lot of the results. So the work is nowhere near done."

Added Duncan: "I would love to see Detroit leapfrog other districts in five years from now (and) be in a very, very different place than it is today.

The students of Detroit don't have time for Duncan's unproven, destructive notions of education "reform." In five years the remaining public schools in Detroit will be nothing better than holding pens for young people who have been deprived of their right to education.


Today Stanley Nelson reports:

The Concordia Parish Grand Jury began hearing testimony Tuesday concerning the 1964 murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris.

Witnesses were seen entering the courthouse to appear before the panel which is looking into the 46-year-old murder.

Neither federal nor local authorities would comment on the Grand Jury.

The U.S. Attorney's office in Louisiana's Western District announced in 2009 that the Concordia Parish District Attorney's Office would become involved in the Morris investigation. At that time, former U.S. Attorney Donald Washington of Lafayette said the probe would eventually include the appointment of a federal attorney as an assistant district attorney in Concordia.

The Sentinel has learned that a DOJ attorney appeared before the Grand Jury on Tuesday.

Morris, 51, an African-American, died Dec. 14, 1964, four days after his shoe shop was torched by at least two men. Before he died, Morris told authorities that he saw two men outside the shop on the night of the arson. He said one had a shotgun, the other a gasoline can. He also said he glimpsed another man and a car in the alley beside his shop.

Morris said the man with the shotgun prevented his exit from the front of the shop while the man with the gasoline can ignited the shoe shop with what appeared to be a match.

It was Stanley's reporting that first revealed there is a living suspect in this case.

Read More


Lolita’s Family Photos

Check out this video about my friend Lolita's quest for her family photographs.

(DDFRtv visits Lolita Parker Jr @ Boston from Digital Diaspora Family Reunion on Vimeo.)

What the video does not fully explain is that Lolita is herself a professional photographer. Though we're both from Boston, I met Lolita in Turkey Creek, MS at Derrick Evans' place in January 2006 (see previous post). It is therefore especially moving at the end of this video when Lolita unexpectedly brings up being in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. When I interviewed Katrina survivors in Mississippi (PDF), back when I met Lolita in 2006, lost and damaged photos were a common theme.

I owe a lot to Lolita, who recently reminded me that it was five years ago in last month that we met. From her prodding me to put my then never-exhibited photos in a show she was curating, to her thrusting her camera into my hand and sending me into the crowd at Wally's to shoot, to her stories about how photos of hers came about, to our long conversations about family and history---she's been an important friend and teacher.

This photo, of a family diptych found on the foundation slab of a house obliterated by Hurricane Katrina in Bay St. Louis, MS, was one of the ones that Lolita insisted I include in her show back in 2006.

DSCN0714 by minorjive

Photo by Ben Greenberg


Save the Blacks

This is brilliant coverage of the fight of Turkey Creek, Mississippi African Americans to save their community. Turkey Creek was founded by freed slaves in 1866. Their descendants have been fighting dispossession by developers and environmental racism for years. I interviewed Wyatt Cenac's guide, Derrick Evans, in January 2006, 6 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated his community with little-reported inland flooding and heavy winds. Derrick is a tireless advocate on behalf of his community and on behalf of the Gulf Coast region.

Derrick Evans and journalist Jonathan Tilove outside Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church, Rippy Road, Turkey Creek, MS. (Photo by Ben Greenberg)

Derrick Evans and journalist Jonathan Tilove outside Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church, Rippy Road, Turkey Creek, MS. (Photo by Ben Greenberg)

{ 1 comment }

Charter Schools: What Would Dr. King Say?

As we mark another day of commemoration for the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we may wonder what Dr. King would make of our current state of educational affairs, wherein education is declared by reformers, with no apparent irony, as the civil rights issue for a generation of children whose schools are more segregated by race and class than those of 30 years ago. We can only guess how he might respond to business and political leaders who offer segregated total-compliance schools run by corporations as the only other choice for parents who desperately want something more than the malignantly neglected public schools that have recently had the remaining trust and human caring squeezed out of them under the weight of test-and-punish reforms. Indeed, we may wonder what Dr. King would say to those federal officials and corporate foundation heads who view children principally for the future capital they will generate to maintain a corrupted anti-worker political economy and corporate welfare system that threaten to undermine democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise itself....

In the coming years, if corporate foundations like Gates, Broad, Fisher and Walton, along with the political establishment whose favor they curry, would put as much economic and ideological weight behind rebuilding a stronger and more equitable public system of schools, rather than tearing down a system that took almost 200 years to create, then the ideals of American democracy would have a much better chance to survive these difficult times and, perhaps, one day flourish in ways we have yet to witness. I believe Dr. King would agree.

(Jim Horn, Charter Schools: What Would Dr. King Say?)


On Wednesday, after Stanley Nelson published information implicating Rayville, La. truck driver Leonard Spencer in the 1964 murder of Black shoe shop owner Frank Morris in Ferriday, La., local reporter Samantha Boatman from KNOE News confronted Spencer at a Rayville machine shop where he works. With her was a Civil Rights Cold Case Project film crew, led by David Paperny, who is the male voice you hear asking questions off camera in the video, below. Spencer, who is an admitted former member of the Ku Klux Klan, denies any knowledge of the crime.

Though Spencer says on camera that he has been interviewed by the FBI as recently as last month, he insists to Boatman and Paperny that this interview is the first time he has ever heard the name of Frank Morris. Spencer also insists that he never knew deceased former Klansman Cooney Poissot, who allegedly implicated Spencer in the crime and who is remembered as a close family friend by Spencer's son and former wife.

The FBI would not comment on its ongoing investigation of the Frank Morris to KNOE News, but Concordia Parish District Attorney Brad Burget told KNOE that his office has been asked to assist the FBI: once through investigating, the FBI will share its findings with Burget who must then decide whether to prosecute.

Interview video segment 1 of 3

Visit KNOE News for Samantha Boatman's full report and the rest of the footage from this remarkable interview.

Related reading

(Cross-posted at the Civil Rights Cold Case Project.)

{ 1 comment }

Investigations Force Feds to Revisit Murders of Civil Rights Era

1950s Frank Morris shop-Frank is tallest in pic

Frank Morris is tallest in the picture, 4th from left in the line wearing visor. Frank is seen here standing in front of his shoe shop in Ferriday, La circa 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Concordia Sentinel and William Brown, 2010. www.coldcases.org

I'm covering the developments in the Stanley Nelson's Frank Morris murder investigation at Colorlines today:

On Dec. 10, 1964, a 51-year-old, black shoe-shop owner named Frank Morris was burned alive inside his store in Ferriday, La. Morris miraculously survived severe burns to all of the skin on his body, was hospitalized and lived four more days in agony and morphine-induced delirium before he finally died. On his deathbed, Morris told the FBI how his store was broken into and how the intruders had poured gasoline inside the store. He said there were two white men.

The FBI investigated twice in the 1960s with no conclusion. Today, in Ferriday’s Concordia Sentinel, its editor Stanley Nelson reports compelling evidence that Leonard Spencer, an admitted former member of the Ku Klux Klan living in Richland Parish, La., helped set the 1964 fire that killed Frank Morris.

Remarkably, Nelson’s witnesses to confessions by Spencer are his former brother-in-law, Bill Frasier, and his son, Boo Spencer. Additionally, Leonard Spencer’s ex-wife, Brenda Rhodes, attests to hearing an alleged fellow Klansman and close friend of Spencer confess to working with Spencer to set the shoe shop on fire.

“I’m somewhat encouraged,” Nelson told me in a telephone interview. “I think there’s evidence to believe that the majority of the white folks would like to see these cases solved, too.”

Many of the familiar civil rights era racial murders are stories of retaliation for activism. The victims’ names are embedded in our cultural memory of the era’s violence: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, Wharlest Jackson, Louis Allen, Herbert Lee, Birdia Keglar and Adlena Hamlett---to name just a few in Mississippi.

But there were other victims, like Frank Morris, who were targeted for reasons that are less overtly political, and perhaps even more insidious. These are stories in which there seem to be an accumulation of hostilities towards a black male that reach an unpredictable breaking point. Three main things animate the hostilities towards this different class of victim, often occurring in combination: their financial success, their willingness to stand up to whites and allegations of their having liaisons, real or perceived, with white women.

(Read the rest at Colorlines.)

Stanley Nelson's articles:

More coverage of news implicating Arthur Leonard Spencer in 1964 murder of Frank Morris

Stanley Nelson and I both investigate civil rights era racial violence in conjunction with the Civil Rights Cold Case Project.

1964 Frank Morris Shoe Shop Destroyed

Frank Morris' burned out shoe shop. Taken December 1964. Photo courtesy of the Concordia Sentinel and August Thompson, 2010. www.coldcases.org


Living Suspect Identified in 1964 Murder of Frank Morris

2010 Arthur Leonard Spencer and Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson (right) interviews Arthur Leonard Spencer at his home in Rayville, La, Summer 2010. Photo by David Paperny, copyright Civil Rights Cold Case Project, 2010. www.coldcases.org

Today my colleague Stanley Nelson has published a remarkable article implicating a truck driver living in Rayville, Louisiana in the 1964 arson murder of Frank Morris, a Black shoe shop owner in Ferriday, Louisiana.

Two people say a Richland Parish truck driver who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan told them he participated in the arson that killed Frank Morris, a black Ferriday businessman, in 1964. A third person, the truck driver's former wife, says she, too, heard what she believes was a credible eyewitness report that placed the truck driver at the scene of the arson when the fire was ignited more than 46 years ago.

2010 Boo Spencer, Arthur Leonard Spencer's son

Boo Spencer, Arthur Leonard Spencer's Son. Photo by David Paperny, copyright Civil Rights Cold Case Project, 2010. www.coldcases.org

The three people, all of them now or previously related to the truck driver, identified him as Arthur Leonard Spencer, 71, of Rayville. They say Spencer was part of a Klan hit squad assigned to ride into Ferriday to torch Morris' shoe shop during the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964.

Spencer's son, William "Boo" Spencer, said in several interviews with the Concordia Sentinel that whenever his father recounted the story of the night Morris' shop was set ablaze, he said the Klansmen were shocked that Morris was inside the shop and that he came to the door as the Klansmen were carrying out their crime.

"My dad said they could hear a stirring in the place, then a man came out," said Boo Spencer, 41. Boo Spencer said his father told him the man in the shoe shop -- Morris -- "was doused with gasoline and started to run." Then one of the Klansmen shouted, "Run, nigger, run."

Stanley has also published an accompanying article that details the FBI and DOJ response to these developments; Stanley had been investigating the Frank Morris murder since 2007.

In recent weeks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation intensified its efforts to solve the 1964 arson-murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris, leading a top FBI official to declare last week that the agency "will solve this crime."

The FBI's fresh activity evolved after the Concordia Sentinel began asking the FBI in November 2010 to comment on information that implicated Arthur Leonard Spencer of Richland Parish in the arson of Morris' shoe shop. Morris died at Concordia Parish Hospital as a result of injuries he sustained in the arson four days after his shoe shop was burned on Dec. 10, 1964.

Last week, Cynthia Deitle, chief of the FBI's Civil Rights Unit, declined to confirm that agents were investigating Spencer. She said the FBI "will not rest until the truth is uncovered."...

When The Sentinel neared completion of its news report about Leonard Spencer in late November 2010, the paper contacted the FBI's Deitle for comment. Deitle expressed deep concern over The Sentinel's intention to publish the story at that time.

If The Sentinel published its article implicating Leonard Spencer in the Morris arson/murder, Deitle warned, the FBI investigation of the Morris case and another unsolved civil rights-era murders would be jeopardized. Deitle would not disclose what the other case was.

Later, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin asked The Sentinel to hold off on publishing its story until January. Like Deitle, Austin said publishing the story about Spencer in November or December 2010 would jeopardize the FBI's investigation. He did not say anything about another unsolved civil rights-era murder case.

Stanley and I are colleagues at the Civil Rights Cold Case Project.


Watch Night Services (from the Archives)

Back in the relatively early days of this blog, my friend Marsha Joyner guest posted a wonderful reflection on Watch Night Services in African-American culture. I still get a lot of search engine traffic to it every year around this time. If you haven't read it before, I invite you to read the whole thing. Marsha's other posts here are also worth reading.

Heard and Moseley. Waiting for the hour (Emancipation), December 31, 1862.

Those of us who grew up in America’s traditional Black communities know of Watch Night Services, the gathering of the faithful in church on New Year’s Eve. So as I ventured into the world it came as a surprise to me that other than the Catholic Church, which celebrates the eve of the feast of the Circumcision late on the evening of December 31, primarily white protestant churches generally do not have a church service for a secular holiday.

The service is an opportunity to tell the story of one of the most important milestones in the Blacks’ American history. The Watch Night Services that we celebrate in Black communities today can be traced back to gatherings on December 31, 1862, also known as Freedom’s Eve. On that night, Blacks came together in churches and private homes, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. Blacks have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us through another year.

Watch Night Services | Hungry Blues.


Haley Barbour’s Disingenuous Comparison

UPDATE 12/29: Justin Elliott spoke with Steve Mangold and was able to elaborate on Mangold's letter.

As you may recall, when Haley Barbour was asked by the Weekly Standard what it was like to grow up in Yazoo City, MS "in the midst of the civil rights revolution," Barbour said, "“I just don’t remember it as being that bad."

While there is lots of evidence to the contrary on the historical record, I thought it worth highlighting this recollection from one of Haley Barbour's fellow white Yazoo City natives, purportedly his best friend when they were growing, up, Steve Mangold.

Haley Barbour was my best friend growing up in Yazoo City.

While he can say that Yazoo missed the violence other towns experienced during the Civil Rights movement, the White Citizens Council did do its part to terrorize those who did not agree with its agenda.

My parents, both physicians, protested attempts by the White Citizens Council and other doctors to turn a federally funded Hill-Burton "separate-but-equal" hospital into a whites only facility in 1955.

Threatening phone calls, dead cats on the lawn and other acts of intimidation combined to run my father out of town for two years.

He lost all of his white patients; my mother, the only pediatrician in town, lost more than half of her white patients.

Yazoo City's blacks continued to die on the nearly hour-long ambulance drive to Jackson, where they could get hospital and trauma care. Blacks with gunshot and knife wounds, burns from kerosene stoves and children with convulsions continued to come to our house for emergency care, and some died because the city fathers on the White Citizens Council didn't want an integrated hospital.

To say, as Haley did, that the White Citizens Council was better than the KKK, is a disingenuous comparison that has more to do with costume than terrorism and organized bullying.

Steve Mangold

San Jose, Calif.

(Letter to the editor, Clarion-Ledger, December 28, 2010, via Jan Hillegas)


Haley Barbour’s Raid on Historical Memory

(An update follows this post.)

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is at it again. Seems like every time Barbour pops up in the news these days he's busy whitewashing Mississippi's racist past.

The latest came my way yesterday via Digby and Joan McCarter at Kos. In an interview with the Weekly Standard, Barbour had the audacity to claim that the White Citizens' Councils were the reason why schools in his home town of Yazoo City, MS integrated with out violence.

Both Mr. Mott and Mr. Kelly had told me that Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so.

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”

Up north, down south and anywhere anybody knows anything about the White Citizens Councils, they know the WCCs were community associations whose purpose was to uphold segregation—often by means, like economic coercion, more subtle than the Klan violence, but no less racist and hateful than other hardcore racists of the time. Atrios and Matt Yglesias rightly called bullshit with some of the history of the Yazoo City Citizens Council opposition to school integration.

I thought I'd add some primary sources to the mix, which should help to make it clear---should anyone doubt it---that the Citizens Council was just as virulently racist as the Klan. Here is an excerpt from a 1963 speech by Louis W. Hollis, then executive director of the Citizens' Councils of America, to the Savannah, Georgia White Citizens' Council. Hollis also served on the board of directors of his local Citizens' Council in Jackson, Mississippi.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we allow integration to be forced upon us, if we allow the resulting destruction of our social order, we can expect no economic or cultural future whatsoever.

Yet, in the face of all this evidence, what are the conditions which an arrogant Federal government would foist upon us? Our city governments would be debauched by the negro bloc vote. Black insolence would threaten women, and gangs of black toughs would threaten our children, as is happening in so many cities of the North today….

Nations were made by men, not by paper Constitutions and paper ballots. We're not free because we have a Constitution. We have a Constitution because our pioneer fathers who cleared the wilderness and dared the might of kings were free men…if you can make men out of paper, then it is possible with a scratch of a pen in the hands of a tyrannical judge or a vicious attorney general, to transform by its magic 18 million blacks into 18 million kings.

We gladly grant the negro his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..if he can be happy without exercising kinship with the white race, or dragging us down to his level. But, if he cannot find happiness except in amalgamation with the white race, let him look for another world in which to live. There is no room for both of us on this continent!!

We've been congratulated on our self-restraint under the awful provocation of the last nine years. But, there is a limit beyond which we dare not go, for at this point, self-restraint is cowardice and means the loss of manhood. My friends, I ask you to determine to make good your right to live! The time for platitudes is past. Let us, as men and women face the world and say what we mean.

This is a white man's government, conceived by white men and maintained by white men through every year of its history. And by the God of our fathers, it shall be ruled by the white man until the archangels shall call the end of time!

Integration represents darkness, regimentation, totalitarianism, Communism and destruction. Segregation represents the freedom to choose one's associates, Americanism, State Sovereignty and the survival of the white race. (pgs 15, 16, 17)

Now back to Yazoo City. Atrios and Yglesias both discussed the Yazoo City Citizens' Council's successful use of social and economic pressure to get local Blacks to withdraw their names from a NAACP petition to desegregate the local schools. Historical documents show further that economic sanctions and intimidation were mainstays of the Yazoo City Citizens' Council.

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state funded segregationist spy agency, funneled public money into the Citizens Councils ((Link/citation coming)) and received regular intelligence from Council officials all around the state. The Sovereignty Commission files were declassified in 1998 and are available online. In a November 26, 1958 memo, Sovereignty Commission investigator Zack J. Van Landingham recounted a visit to a Yazoo City Citizens' Council Steering Committee luncheon.

Approximately 20 of the leading citizens were present, including some 4 or 5 from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Among those present were the President of the Citizens' Council, Dr. R.J. Moorehead, Mr. Tom Campbell, a prominent attorney, Mr. Albert S. Gardner, a member of the House of Representatives and the editor of the local newspaper. These executive meetings are held each Friday noon as a luncheon at the Danries Restaurant. At these meetings, they take up anything pertinent relative to racial relations that has happened during the last week and decide what action should be taken. If the complaint is with reference to some Negro agitator, a committee will go to the Negro's boss and discuss the situation with him. Usually the boss will fire the Negro. That will end the matter without the Citizens' Council ever being outwardly involved.

Van Landingham returned to Yazoo City on January 9, 1959 and met with Sheriff J.H. Moore.

Sheriff Moore advised that there had been no trouble with reference to the Negroes in Yazoo County in the past 2 or 3 years, or since the petition seeking admission to the white schools had been made by the Negroes with subsequent disastrous results as affected them.

Sheriff Moore advised that only 28 Negroes were registered to vote in Yazoo County at the present time as compared with approximately 300 who were registered to vote when he took office. He attributed this slackening off to a lack of interest on the part of the Negroes. He stated that the troublemakers who had been responsible for the public school petition to integrate the races had all left Yazoo City due to economic reprisals which had been made against the. [sic] None of them have returned.

He also attributes the lack of interest on the part of the Negroes to the 3 strong Citizens' Councils which are in operation in Yazoo County. These Citizens' Councils are located at Benton, Bentonia, and Yazoo City.

The evidence is overwhelming that Haley Barbour's assertions about the White Citizens' Council are untrue. Why is he purveying these blatant lies? I agree with Digby, who says "it's clearly a strategy."

If he's running for president, as it seems he is, then I'd guess he's going to have to appeal to those Tea Partiers to win a primary. (You'll recall that he dissed Sarah Palin pretty badly.) This is a dogwhistle and a clever one. He's simply saying that racism in America was always overblown with the implication being that those who complain about it have always been whiners.

This seems right, but I think there is also something else going on. Over the years of his governorship, Barbour has periodically come under fire for his ties to racist ideologues and causes. For starters, Barbour notoriously refused to distance himself from the White Citizens' Council under its more recent name, the Council of Conservative Citizens, after he attended one of their barbecues, during his gubernatorial run in 2003, and was pictured in their newspaper with members of the group. Running against incumbent governor Ronnie Musgrove, who had supported a recently failed referendum to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the design of Mississippi's state flag, Barbour campaigned with a state-flag pin prominently adorning his lapel.

Unlike Sarah Palin, Barbour has a substantial and unattractive history of policies and actions trailing behind him. This history may come back at him if he runs for president. The clever thing about his dog whistle is it's also a pitch pipe, and he's calling a tune for a chorus of denial and forgetting to buffer him.

UPDATE 12/21: Breaking on Talking Points Memo: Haley Barbour tries to revise his position on the nature of White Citizens' Councils, calls them "totally indefensible," still insists Yazoo City did not tolerate the Klan. Rude Pundit cites some evidence to the contrary, showing presence of the Klan in Yazoo City in 1957 and in 1965.

Further Reading