Free press is essential
The following is from The Advocate.
The so-called “traditional media” has been a whipping boy this year, blamed for evils large and small.
Are journalists perfect? Far from it. But a new book just published by LSU Press serves as a timely reminder of the valuable role that skilled reporters can play in uncovering wrongs and advancing the cause of justice.
“Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s” recounts the research of Stanley Nelson into atrocities of the Jim Crow era, including the 1964 murder of Frank Morris, an African American shoe shop owner in Ferriday.
Nelson, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, works for the Concordia Sentinel, Ferriday’s small community newspaper. Morris was burned to death when two Klansmen threw gasoline into his shoe repair shop and set it on fire. The case languished for years, until the U.S. Department of Justice reopened an investigation in 2007.
Nelson decided to look into the case, too. He discovered, much to his surprise, that not a single representative of any law enforcement agency had ever talked to the Morris family about his death.
“I would go on to write 190 articles over seven years,” Nelson tells readers. “There would be other cold cases, including some in Mississippi that had a Concordia connection. Not everyone was happy about my reporting. There were nasty calls and ugly letters and emails. The newspaper office was broken into. Two straight mornings before dawn, while I was making my daily walk, a pickup emerged from the distance and flushed me off the road. Through the years, I interviewed aging Klansmen and witnesses in many places, including cornfields, cemeteries, churchyards, hospitals, and hotel rooms. I was cursed often but received decently by most.”
As Nelson reminds readers, when public servants refuse to serve, a free press can be key in holding them accountable. “The cases I have discussed in this book were cases that should have been investigated by local officials,” he writes. “For the past fifty years, every law enforcement official or lawyer — male or female, black or white — in every town, parish, or county where these murders occurred took an oath to enforce the law. Yet the vast majority didn’t lift a finger to solve these crimes. In most of these murders, the federal government had no jurisdiction, but without the FBI and the Department of Justice nothing would have been done.
“Every community and every citizen bears the ultimate responsibility of justice, including me and including you,” Nelson adds. “After half a century, who is to blame for the failure of justice in cases like these? We all are.”
To learn more about the resolution of the Frank Morris murder and other Klan-related crimes, read Nelson’s book. It’s compelling proof that traditional media is still doing good work, even when it involves personal risk.