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"Writing" Past Wrongs

LSU Mass Communication Students Visit National Archives, Assist Newspaper Editor in Investigating KKK-related Murders in the 60s


Concordia Sentinel Editor Stanley Nelson gives details about his cold case murder investigations in the Holliday Forum at LSU. Nelson was named the first recipient of the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication's Courage and Justice Award 2011.
Photo courtesy of James E. Shelledy

In a world of instantaneous communication – Twitter, Facebook and headline tickers – timeliness is one of the most relevant aspects of modern journalism. The idea of getting the day’s top story first is paramount, but five students in LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication spent a week last spring digging through the National Archives in Washington, D.C., researching cold case civil rights murders in rural Louisiana in the 1960s.

The graduate and undergraduate students traveled to Washington as part of the Field Experience capstone course taught by James E. Shelledy, holder of the Fred Jones Greer Chair at the Manship School. Shelledy, who spent 30 years as an investigative reporter and editor for several newspapers before joining the Manship faculty in 2005, felt the opportunity was essential in educating today’s journalists.

“We are assisting Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La., with KKK-related murders in that area during the 1960s,” said Shelledy. “He untangled one of them and was named runner-up in this year's Pulitzer Prize awards.” 

Recent mass communication graduate, Robert Stewart, believes the lessons learned on the trip were invaluable.

“We were taught how to read through the National Archive and FBI files, as well as the process to obtain those files,” said Stewart. “It takes a long time for these files to be prepared for inspection, so it's good to know that you should plan a trip to the National Archives and FBI well in advance.”


Frank Morris' burned out shoe repair shop, Dec. 1964. Along the main highway to Ferriday, Louisiana.
Photo courtesy of James E. Shelledy

Matthew Albright, another recent graduate, felt the experience was both educational and enlightening.

“Getting to do research in the National Archives was awe-inspiring,” said Albright. “We were in the same building where they keep the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta, looking up actual case files and correspondence.”

The spring field trip to scrutinize the unseen 40-year-old FBI field investigations primarily focused on the 1964 murder of Frank Morris, a successful Ferriday businessman and black civic leader who died when the Klan torched his shoe repair shop. The trip netted some 800 pages of mostly unpublicized material housed at the National Archives.

 “When people our age study the civil rights movement, the Klu Klux Klan and the horrible things that people did to each other, it sometimes seems like it happened so long ago -- like something we read in history books alongside the ancient Greeks,” said Albright. “I started to understand the people behind the headlines and the footnotes of history, and that was rewarding.”

While leafing through countless files in the National Archives was a unique experience, it was one where patience was essential.


Spring 2011 Field Experience capstone course student team stand on the remains of Frank Morris' store. L-R: Matthew Albright, Robert Stewart, Sarah Lawson and Lex Wilson listen to Concordia Sentinel Editor Stanley Nelson discuss details of the murder.
Photo courtesy of James E. Shelledy

“The most trying aspect was going through all the files,” said Stewart of the dozens of boxes pertaining to the cases.

According to Shelledy, the students filed about two dozen Freedom of Information Act requests for heretofore sealed FBI records.

“We started to get them last year and have some 30,000 to 40,000 pages of investigative records coming available for our inspection this coming school year,” said Shelledy. 

A student team will return to Washington, D.C., to the National Archives to review and record these documents in the fall and again in the spring.

Wilson, who returned to Washington in the fall for another round of leafing through case files, believes this project provides a sense of fulfillment that often is lost in the day-to-day grind of deadline journalism. “I receive a great sense of accomplishment knowing we are helping bring closure to those who lived through this period.”

LSU Research is published by the Office of Research & Economic Development, or ORED. For more information or a copy of the 2011 issue, contact ORED at 225-578-5833. To see the current issue online, visit http://issuu.com/lsuored/docs/ored_research_magazine_fall_2011_online?mode=window&backgroundColor=%23222222.

 

From LSU Research, the university publication celebrating the constant pursuit of discovery.