Reading Stanley Nelson’s book, “Devils Walking,” detailing brutal murders meted out by an offshoot of the Klu Klux Klan, is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard to conceive the kind of evil necessary to commit these crimes, but Nelson, editor of The Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, LA, spent almost ten years digging into the past to uncover the details.
“As a reporter, you want to know the answers to those questions,” Nelson said during a recent telephone interview from his office. “It’s never taken me this long, but you reach a point where you can’t turn back.”
Nelson will be at Winnsboro Center for the Arts Saturday, Oct. 8, beginning at 10:30 a.m. He’ll sign books, make a presentation, take questions from the audience and read excerpts from the book.
Nelson began working on these stories in 2007 when the FBI released a list of cold cases from the Civil Rights Era. One of them was from Ferriday.
Frank Morris’ shoe shop burned down on the evening of Dec. 10, 1964, while he was inside. He died four days later without giving up the name of the men who started the blaze.
Nelson wrote a story about the fire and Morris’ horrific death, and thought that would be the end of it.
But then, he received a call from Morris’ granddaughter, Rosa, who said she learned more about that grisly night – and her grandfather – than she had ever known before.
“Years had passed, and she knew nothing,” Nelson stated. “She had been on her knees praying someone would do something. That was my real inspiration.”
Some 200 stories later, Nelson has put together a book, due for release early next month by Louisiana State University Press, about the eight men who died at the hands of the Silver Dollar Group, an ultra-violent branch of the Klan.
In the book, Nelson also writes about Charles Moore and Henry Dee, both just 19, who were taken while hitchhiking in May of 1964.
“You can only imagine,” Nelson said. “You’re kidnapped and you’re beaten, and you don’t know why. Then you’re held in a barn. You’re taken in the trunk of a car, tied up and are taken to a location. You don’t know where you are, but you know it’s not good. They open the trunk, and they can’t believe you’re still alive.”
The boys were driven to the river and dumped, to drown. Their bodies were discovered in the backwaters of the Mississippi in July of that year.
Nelson said he felt compelled to learn the truth about the murders.
“I work for a newspaper,” he said. “No one else is going to do this work. I wanted to know myself what had happened and why no one was ever brought to justice.”
When asked how he got people to talk to him for the stories, Nelson said, “I know these people. I’m from here. I know how most of them grew up, particularly during that era. I feel that you just sit down and let them talk.”
Nelson also reached out to the FBI agents who worked these cases.
“I had a good relationship with them,” he explained. “They were really inspirational to me. I’ll never understand why today’s bureau just ignored them totally. Had they put all their resources into the investigations, they might have done a much better job.”
According to Nelson, the agents who originally worked the cases really wanted them solved.
“They spent time on the ground here,” he noted. “Their lives were in danger. They didn’t solve the cases back then, but they did effectively neutralize the Klan and brought about their unraveling. There are always a few hate groups popping up here and there, and they’ll never go away, but we’ll never see a Klan again like we had in the 1960s.”
Concordia Parish and southwest Mississippi were known as “outlaw country,” according to Nelson’s FBI sources.
“It was almost like the American frontier,” Nelson noted. “They were known for vigilante justice and for keeping quiet. Not talking was just ingrained here. Don’t open your mouth. What your neighbor did was his business, not yours.”
He also believes there were “ordinary white citizens who knew stuff was going on, but they didn’t know exactly what and they didn’t know how all of these crimes went down.”
Furthermore, the ones who did were not talking. Not everyone was forthcoming as the former FBI agents.
“They knew to keep their mouths shut,” he stated.
If they didn’t stay quiet, they would likely end up dead like Earl Hodges, who had quit the Klan and was set to speak to law enforcement.
“The fear was Earl Hodges was going to talk, and they didn’t like it so they killed him,” Nelson said. “His death opened my eyes to how bad it was.”
It wasn’t like Hodges could go to local law enforcement.
“Law enforcement in Concordia Parish [Ferriday] was complicit,” he explained. “Franklin County law enforcement [Mississippi] was complicit. Law enforcement in Natchez was complicit. Some of those [involved] were deputies and police officers.”
Because of the code of silence, Nelson says “these stories were almost forever buried. They were almost lost.”
Of the 15 ‘hard core” Silver Dollar group members who were involved in the killings, none are still alive.
“There are two or three fringe members who came on later who are certainly racists and who could be violent men, but I know of no murders they committed,” he offered.
As for AltRight, the radical group in today’s headlines, Nelson says, “I just stay away from that.”
Nelson’s serious when he says he stays away. In order to remain sane while working on the book, Nelson avoided the 24/7 news cycle, especially at home. He doesn’t have an internet connection and is fighting the long-needed switch to a smart phone.
Once he began covering these stories, Nelson’s connection to them could not be avoided. He was threatened; and his newspaper received ugly comments. He was run off the road twice while out taking his morning walk.
“I was worried,” he admitted. “You think about those things. You’re not foolish about it. I was just determined that nobody was going to scare me. I’m no superman, but I am of the age that we don’t scare easily.”
Nelson’s work has earned him a wall full of awards. In 2011, he was one of three finalists for a Pulitzer Prize in journalism.
The Concordia Sentinel has won the Payne Award for ethics in journalism, the Courage and Justice Award and the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and ethics in rural journalism.
Nelson’s been invited to speak at the National Press Club’s annual book event in November.
Publisher’s Weekly issued a positive review about the book, stating “Nelson ends his meticulous narrative on a haunting note, stating that ‘we all are’ responsible for failures of justice such as these, but by bringing these stories to light he has made a great contribution to righting a historical wrong.”
Nelson has also inspired a generation of journalism students to continue digging into these cases. Some of them serve as interns at his paper, helping with the cold case stories.
“I always tell them that you’ll never do anything more important in your life than what you’re doing right now,” he said.
After learning of Nelson’s work and becoming friends, The New York Times best-selling author Greg Iles dedicated “Natchez Burning” to him and created a character named Henry Sexton based on him.
To Stanley Nelson, of the
A humble hero.
all the victims of the civil
Mississippi and Louisiana 1960-1969.
While Nelson appreciates the sentiment and his book deal with LSU Press, he has other reasons for doing the work that has consumed him for so long.
“As much as I want to sell books, and believe me I do, I just hope people come away with something they’ll think about,” he said. “We’ve come a long way in this country, but we still have hearts out there that aren’t right. We’ve got to get our hearts right. If I achieve that, I’m a happy man. I’m ready to meet my maker. I’ve done what I can do.”
The Oct. 8 event at the arts center is free. No tickets are necessary, but come early for the best seat, as they are expecting a full house.
Copies of “Devils Walking” are available at Winnsboro Emporium (903-342-6140) and will also be on sale at the arts center Oct. 8.