Small-town paper links ex-Klansman to 1964 killing

Arthur Leonard Spencer says sure, he made some mistakes back when he was a "snot-nose kid," like joining the Ku Klux Klan. But murder?

No, the 71-year-old Spencer says, a small-town weekly paper got it wrong when it reported recently that he may have been involved in burning down a black man's shoe repair shop in 1964 with the owner inside.

"I feel sorry for his family, but I didn't have nothing to do with it," Spencer said.

No law enforcement agency has named Spencer as a suspect. But for the dead man's family, still praying for justice 46 years later, it's a welcome if not entirely solid lead.

The allegations were reported by the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, whose editor, Stanley Nelson, has dedicated the past four years of his life to an all-consuming investigation of the blaze that killed 51-year-old Frank Morris.

Nelson has written more than 100 stories about the case, culminating in an article that quoted Spencer's estranged son, his ex-wife and her brother as saying the former Klansman confessed to taking part in the crime.

Morris' slaying is one of more than 100 unsolved cases from the civil rights era that the FBI reopened in recent years. But for Nelson, the Morris case was unique, because it happened in his town. He has pledged to solve the crime once and for all.

The motive for the attack is not clear.

By most accounts Morris was well liked around town by both his black and white customers. He was separated or divorced and lived alone in a back room at his shop.

He was not known to be actively involved in the civil rights movement, which made black men targets in those days. And FBI documents indicate at least one witness debunked rumors that Morris had courted white women — a virtual death sentence in that era. Still, just being a successful black businessman with a white clientele and having contact with white women was enough to enrage many people back then.

Others have speculated that Morris may have been targeted for refusing to do shoe repairs for a corrupt sheriff's deputy, who wanted the services for free.

Whatever the case, heavily censored FBI files from the time paint a chilling picture of Morris' death.

Morris was asleep inside the wooden store in Ferriday on Dec. 10, 1964. He woke up about 2 a.m. to the sound of breaking glass and crept to the front of the shop. Two men were standing just outside, one of them holding a shotgun.

"Get back in there, nigger," one of the men said. The other tossed a match onto the gasoline they had poured inside.

The gas exploded and Morris ran out the back door, his body in flames. Two police officers who arrived within minutes took him to a hospital. He died four days later — but not before describing his attackers.

They were "kind of small," maybe 30 to 35 years old, Morris told FBI investigators in one of several interviews. They had been in the store before. He later described the attackers as men he thought were his friends, but he never told investigators their names.

It's not clear whether he didn't know their names or was scared of further attacks. It is also likely that his severe injuries and heavy doses of medication impaired his ability to help investigators.

There may have been at least one other man waiting in a getaway car, Morris said, but he didn't get a good look at that person.

Nelson believes one of the men may have been Spencer, and said so on the front page of his newspaper. Nelson received reporting help from an organization he helped found, the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, a team of investigative reporters, academics, documentary filmmakers and others who want to tell the stories of unsolved cases from the civil rights era.

Among those Nelson quotes is Spencer's former brother-in-law, Bill Frasier, who was a sheriff's deputy at one time.

Frasier told The Associated Press that he and Spencer were chatting decades ago about Spencer's days in the KKK when the subject came up unexpectedly.

"I asked him, 'Did y'all ever kill anybody?'" Frasier said in an interview. "He said, 'We did one time by accident.'"

Frasier alleges that Spencer went on to explain that the group burned a store when nobody was supposed to be inside, though Spencer didn't name Morris as the victim and insisted that he stayed in the car.

Spencer's ex-wife, Brenda Rhodes, didn't return calls from the AP. Efforts to find Spencer's son were unsuccessful.

Rhodes was quoted by the Concordia Sentinel as saying a friend of hers, a man now dead, once claimed that he and Spencer participated in the crime. The son, an ex-convict named Boo Spencer, told the paper that his father admitted taking part in the crime, adding that the Klan didn't like that Morris owned a business.

Boo Spencer has served time in prison for theft and other crimes, and authorities said the father helped them on at least one occasion when they were investigating the son.

The FBI won't discuss Spencer in detail.

"We are aware of these allegations, but allegations alone are not proof," the agency said in a statement. "As with any case, the FBI is committed to a thorough investigation of all information we receive."

Spencer, a stocky man with dyed black hair and a salt-and-pepper beard who spent his life working as a trucker and mechanic, denied any involvement in the crime during a recent interview with the AP at his home, a small white house at the end of a long gravel road outside Rayville, La., billed as the "White Gold Capital of the South" because of its vast cotton fields.

Spencer said he was questioned by the FBI last year. He said he cooperated and has nothing to hide.

So why would people say these things about him? The $10,000 reward? Vengeance?

Spencer said his son, his ex-wife and her brother are all mad at him because he left the family. "It's like a fatal attraction — you know, like that movie. They won't leave me alone. And now they're tying to put a murder on me that I don't know nothing about," he said.

No one has ever been charged in the case. And it's not clear how much evidence the FBI has to go on after so many years.

The FBI obtained a portion of a finger that had been found two days after the fire in a parking lot or alley near Morris' burned store, according to FBI documents from the 1960s. There have been conflicting reports about whether Morris was missing a finger, but some hospital officials told investigators he was not. Spencer isn't either.

There was little other evidence — soil and clothing samples and a five-gallon container that provided no fingerprints.

Rosa Williams, Morris' granddaughter, said she has ached for answers for most of her life. Now, she said, she has hope because she knows the FBI has been working the case. And she believes Nelson will see it through to the end. She has learned more about the case from him than from anyone else, she said.

"It's been a long battle. It's hard. It still is. We are hoping there will be justice," Williams said.

Jake Davis was 13 in 1964 and worked at Morris' shop. In a recent interview with the AP, Davis said he saw Morris arguing with three white men on the day of the fire but doesn't know whether one of them was Spencer. As a young black boy, Davis didn't even mention the three men when the FBI questioned him at the time.

"If I had talked then, I probably wouldn't be around now," he said.