Sam Hanna was a hard-nosed reporter and a great political writer. He loved everything about the newspaper business. He loved the sound and the feel of the presses rolling and humming. He smoked a cigar and was just an energetic force, a true newspaperman. He would type on his Underwood and it would sound like a machine gun. Whenever he’d be away on an assignment and needed to call in his story, he’d always ask for me to take dictation. He’d write it in his head as I was typing and it was perfect.
That day the DA came in, Mr. Hanna was unhappy. There was a lot of vice in the area, and a lot of tolerance of it from law enforcement. Mr. Hanna had heard about a new business in town that plainly had prostitution operating in the back in broad daylight. Mr. Hanna wanted to know why the DA hadn’t done anything about it. He wanted to know what he was going to do about it. He wanted to know when.
My eyes kind of bulged out because he was very bold about his questions and very firm in asking them. I think Mr. Hanna felt that once you knew about something that was wrong in the community, it would be morally irresponsible not to act on it. The lesson to me as a young reporter wasn’t that it was the district attorney’s duty to shut down houses of prostitution (though it was), but that it was the journalist’s job to ask why he hadn’t. I just remember thinking that if Mr. Hanna hadn’t asked those questions, who else around here would have?
Stirring Up Old Hatreds
One day in 2007, when the FBI released a list of unsolved civil rights cases, one of the Hanna owners walked through the newsroom and said there was a Ferriday case on the list. Even though I grew up not far from here, I had never heard anything about it. Of course we’re always wanting the local angle on a national story, so I began making some calls.
One call led to another and pretty soon I had some redacted FBI records gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center. That, plus a story we had published in the paper in 1964, provided enough information to report that the FBI list included the 1964 arson of a shoe repair shop owned by Frank Morris, a black man, and that the FBI suspected it was race-related. Morris was inside when the fire was set. The fire consumed him and he ran from the building in flames. He was burned horribly and lingered in agonizing pain for four days before dying.
After my first story or two, the grand-daughter of Frank Morris, Rosa Morris Williams, called me from her home in Las Vegas. She had lived in Ferriday and was twelve when Morris’s shop was torched. She had vivid memories of a delightful grandfather with a great sense of humor, and of the fear black people had of the Klan.
I just kept going, kept reporting and writing, about Morris and two other blacks killed by the Klan, Wharlest Jackson and Joseph Edwards. I felt about their cases the way Mr. Hanna felt about the prostitution: it would be morally irresponsible not to learn more, write more, and see who was accountable.
Investigative reporting is not something I ever thought I would do. It’s not glamorous, especially when you’re one of three people trying to cover the community and put out a weekly full-service newspaper. When you’re looking into murders that took place forty and fifty years ago, you feel lucky just to learn whether the people mentioned in old documents are alive. Finding, reaching, and talking with them and others who may know about it is another challenge altogether.
The biggest hurdle is just finding out what happened. What precipitated the decision to kill Morris, Jackson, and Edwards, what planning took place? And how did the killers do it? This is one of those rare cases where the “why” of what they did—pure racial hatred—was easier to get than the “how.”