Flames consumed the hot Louisiana morning in 1964. The owner of a shoe repair shop, Frank Morris awoke to find his shop ablaze and a shotgun aimed at him. ““Get back, nigger!”” the man wielding the gun yelled. Within seconds Morris, who was in the shop, became engulfed in flames. His cries echoed. Morris died and no one was charged for his murder.
Hank Klibanoff, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Race Beat,” about news coverage during the civil rights era, will speak on campus at 7 p.m. March 20. As the managing editor of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, Klibanoff will discuss how investigative reporting, documentary filmmaking and multimedia production is used to prod unsolved murders from the South during the Civil Rights era.
Klibanoff said racially charged murders were often committed in the South during that tense era, which were often investigated by the FBI but overlooked by local law enforcement, ultimately going unsolved.
“That’s no reason why journalists today can’t look at the records, put the story back together and try to figure out who did what to bring answers to the families,” said Klibanoff, who directs and teaches in the Emory University journalism program.
Klibanoff said details of murder cases of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project can be found at http://www.coldcases.org. In addition to this project, he heads the Emory State Cold Case Files Project, a course where students can engage in investigative reporting about unsolved murders that took place in Georgia during the Civil Rights era.
Marie Claire Kelly, a senior at Emory who is in the course, said she enjoys working with FBI primary documents on real cold case murders.
Kelly said the project is focused on historical and journalistic perspectives to give the murders context. She said there are different forms of finding justice.
“It’s about uncovering parts of the struggles of our history that have been swept under the rug,” Kelly said.
Klibanoff’s book, “The Race Beat,” offers vital historical context to understand the attitudes and beliefs that fueled the murders in the South during the Civil Rights era.
“Back in the ‘30s-‘50s white supremacy was the way of life and law of the land in the South. Legislators who passed laws not only advanced it, they made it illegal not to discriminate against African-Americans,” Klibanoff said.
He said the Ku Klux Klan was as violent, vicious and hellbent as any terrorist group today, intimidating anyone who expressed a counter point of view. However, he also said there were many Klansmen who were regular informants for the FBI.
A primary source mentioned in the book is John Seigenthaler, who was the administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s. He was also the editor and publisher for the Tennessean and the editorial director of USA Today.
In an exclusive interview with TNL, Seigenthaler shared first-hand accounts of his ordeal during the Freedom Rides of 1961 to sketch how intense the racial hatred was in the South.
Seigenthaler said he was sent on a mission by President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy to negotiate protection for the freedom riders with Alabama governor John M. Patterson. After resistance from Patterson, who at first insisted that the “freedom riders can’t be protected because they wanted to get killed,” an agreement was reached that local law enforcement would protect the riders on the streets of Alabama.
Patterson followed through on his promise, with protection surrounding the freedom riders up until they reached the city limits of Alabama.
Then local law enforcement left and the buses were alone. A mob of hundreds swarmed with torches and weapons and attacked.
Seigenthaler was still following the riders when he saw the hell that broke loose.
Seigenthaler said he saw woman freedom riders being jostled and beat before he blew the horn, bounced up on the curb and yelled at them to get into the car. The
mob surrounded the car when Seigenthaler yelled, “Get back! I’m from the federal government.”
At that moment one of them hit Seigenthaler in the head over the left ear with a pipe, knocking him unconscious.
“It dawned on me that I failed on my mission, to hear the screams and see the beatings going on knowing that I couldn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t just the beatings. It was a roar — to see grown women holding children by the hands screaming, ‘Kill ‘em! Kill ‘em!’ and yelling the N word. After all this time, it’s not the sort of sound I will ever forget,” Seigenthaler said.
Seigenthaler’s account awakens the ghosts of the South’s racially divided past, which is necessary to uncovering the historical context behind the cold case files.
The cold case projects Klibanoff is working on seek to fill in history’s gaps and to correct myths to bring exposure, reconciliation and, where possible, criminal prosecution.
For those who have lived in the Civil Rights era, today’s efforts of justice seem to echo the sentiments of “change” and “awareness” Seigenthaler recalled hearing from young freedom rider leader Diane Nash while warning her of the impending danger:
“Sir, you don’t understand. We all signed our last wills last night, and we know someone is probably going to die. But we got to change the system.”