A giant walks among us.
In the ever-shrinking roster of investigative reporting, Stanley Nelson towers over the rest of the field.
Who is Stanley Nelson, you ask?
He is the editor of that shining beacon of dogged, undeterred journalism, the 4,700-circulation Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday.
Before you laugh, Nelson holds the singular distinction of being named as one of three finalists for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for his decade of seeking the truth behind the racial killings in and around the Ferriday-Vidalia-Natchez area during the Jim Crow South’s Ku Klux Klan-led resistance to being pulled against its will by the growing riptide of desegregation—and, some would contend, civilization itself.
Among all the political leaders of the South (Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett, George Wallace, Herman Talmadge, Strom Thurmond, et al), only Louisiana Gov. Earl Long had the political acumen to understand the writing on the wall. He was resigned to the inevitable. It was Long who, when a New Orleans delegation approached him to ask for a public university in New Orleans, said he would do it on one condition: that the new school be fully integrated. Thus did the University of New Orleans come into existence.
But in the decade of the 1960s, hatred among the races was fanned by the KKK and condoned by then-Sheriff Noah Cross and his chief deputy, Frank DeLaughter. DeLaughter, in fact, was a KKK member and remains a suspect in the heinous murder of a shoe repair shop owner, Frank Morris, who in December 1964 was burned alive when his shop was incinerated in a gasoline-fueled fire set by a gang of whites who held a gun on Morris to keep him from escaping the flames.
Both Cross and DeLaughter would go to prison for corruption, but not for the murders and beatings of blacks.
When Morris’s name appeared on an FBI list of cold case murders, Nelson went to work.
No “outsider stirring up trouble,” Nelson is a native of nearby Sicily Island and a proud graduate of Louisiana Tech University’s fine journalism school headed up by the late Wiley Hilburn, himself an advocate of fairness and justice for all human beings.
Whether influenced by Hilburn or by his own code of ethics and integrity, Nelson began digging into Concordia Parish’s dark history, a history local whites would’ve just soon he leave alone.
The blood-soaked trail he happened upon led to other KKK-sanctioned killings. It is those killings—seven blacks and one white KKK member who, it was feared, had discovered a conscience and was about to name names.
His discoveries, written about in some 190 stories over seven years (and supported wholeheartedly by the Sentinel’s owners, the Hanna family), have led to an extraordinary, if sometimes difficult to follow by the necessary phalanx of names, times and places, book.
Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s (LSU Press, 280 pages) is anything but a “delightful” book; it is disturbing, at its best. And it should be.
To say that Nelson has done an exhaustive job would be understating the obvious. Along the way, he realized he needed help. Enter the LSU Manship School of Mass Communications, Syracuse University, Emory University, the Center for Investigative Reporting and others too numerous to include here. Student interns, as obsessed as Nelson, plunged into the project with a zeal that only young bodies and minds could call up.
At the end of it all, Nelson freely expressed his frustration with the FBI for its failure to follow through on leads but at the same time praises the efforts of two FBI agents in particular who infiltrated a dangerous subsect of the KKK, the Silver Dollar Group, which actually carried out much of the carnage inflicted on innocent blacks.
Nelson’s reporting instincts, fueled by a burning curiosity and unimaginable courage, cast him as a hero of unmatched integrity and compassion in the chronicling of one of the most shameful chapters of Louisiana—and American—history.