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.