Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, July 1964
People commit crimes like this because they are ignorant. They need to be educated.
In the summer of 1964, Lt. Col. John D Howard, Major Charles E. Brown, and Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn travelled from Washington, D.C. to Fort Benning, Georgia to complete their military training exercises. Lt. Col. Penn was a decorated soldier in the U.S. Army earning a Bronze Star Medal during the Second World War. Stationed in Washington D.C., Penn worked in the public school system as a teacher and assistant superintendent of adult education and vocational training. Simultaneously, he pursued his doctorate degree in education. Training for two weeks in Ft. Benning, Lt. Col. Penn and his fellow soldiers began the long drive back home on July 11, 1964.
Georgia Highway 172 was being monitored that early morning by the Ku Klux Klan, watching and waiting for cars to drive by with out-of-state license plates. For the Klan, it was a small indication of enemy within their home territory. Not wanting to go through the troubles of finding all-black hotels or boarding homes, the soldiers made the decision to drive straight to D.C. aware of the dangers they could face on the Southern roads, yet unaware of the car following them on their journey. According to Georgia’s, Penn’s wife, testimony, Penn was a committed father who avoided racial conflict. He preferred volunteering rather than marching for racial equality. In fact, throughout his time in Georgia Penn remained on base during his two week stay to avoid any racial conflict. In Athens, Georgia, the men took a short break exchanging drivers before returning on the road. Lt. Col. Penn took over the wheel and continued the journey home. A vehicle approached their car near the Elbert County and Madison County line and fired two shots into the vehicle. Penn was killed instantly, a mere eight days following the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged to utilize the full resources of the F.B.I. in order to solve the murder of Lt. Col. Penn. The FBI spent weeks looking for clues and talking to townspeople in Athens to gather enough evidence to investigate the criminal acts of the local Klan. As a result, Cecil Myers and Joseph Howard Sims were charged with first-degree murder; however, both men were acquitted by an all white jury in the same year. The FBI continued to pursue Penn’s murderers charging them with violating federal law for conspiring to or threatening another person’s civil rights. Four Klan members were found innocent, but Sims and Myers were convicted on conspiracy charges and sentenced ten years each. Despite this sentencing, no one was convicted for the actual murder of Penn.
Herbert Oarsby (Hubert Ursby), September 1964
In search efforts for three missing civil rights workers–James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andre Goodman–searchers discovered the bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee, Eddie Moore, the remains of five unidentified black men, and the body of 14 year old Herbert Oarsby who was wearing a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) t-shirt. That day was September 10, 1964, but Oarbsy date of death would never be determine. Visiting his grandparents from New Orleans, he disappeared on or around September 7th. Witnesses claimed they saw a young black male being forced at gunpoint into a backup truck driven by a white man. On this same day, explosives were set at two grocery stores commonly used by the black community who were protesting local white merchants. Later, eight black resident were arrested for their involvement in the movement. Ultimately, a coroner’s jury ruled Oarsby’s death as an accidental drowning. His case was closed on April 12, 2010.
Frank Morris, December 1964
On December 10, 1964, Frank Morris was asleep in his home adjoining his shoe repair shop which served both the white and black community of Ferriday, Louisiana. Awoken by the sound of broken glass, Frank walked into shop and saw two white men outside. One was pouring gasoline around his store, the other pointing a gun straight at him. While Morris was sleeping, the men filled the inside of his store with gasoline.
I thought they were my close friends…
Frank Morris to the former mayor
Making an attempt to run outside, one of the men shouted, “Get back in, nigger!””. A match was dropped and Morris and his shop were quickly engulfed in flames. Investigators could find no reason for his death. He distanced himself from the growing civil rights movement and was well respected amongst blacks and whites. He was only 51 years old. As his shop burned, Morris was able to escape to a nearby service door. Two officers took him to the hospital. He was severely burned with only the bottoms of his feet sustaining no injury. Over the course of four days, friends, family, and investigators attempted to get Morris to identify the two men; however, he feared for the lives of his family members. All knew he could identify his assailants, but would never learn who murdered Frank Morris for he passed away on December 14, 1964.
Eventually his family and witnesses of the murder moved away and no one was charged with his murder that is until 2007. Law professors and news editor Stanley Nelson, members of the Civil Rights Project, began to investigate the murder of Morris and the murderous acts of the Silver Dollar Group, a branch of the Klan. Sources remarked that this group was extremely violent, but in reality they were no different from the Klan. In 2008, the FBI offered a $10,000 reward and federal and state prosecutors worked to bring Morris’ case to a grand jury. Arthur Leonard Spencer, 71, was suspected of Morris’ murder after three people including his wife, former brother-in-law, and son came forward to investigators.
Jessie (Ollie) Shelby, 1956
On January 20, 1956, a young 23 year old Jessie Shelby was fatally shot by a police officer because he allegedly resisted arrest. This event took place in Yazoo, Mississippi. In 2009, the FBI released a list of possible unsolved hate crime cases occurring during the Civil Rights Movement. Jessie’s name was among the many listed in Mississippi for even the government notice the multiple flaws within this case.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has stated, “Although we cannot turn back the clock nor right these wrongs, we will continue to work closely with our partners to bring a measure of justice to the victims’ families and friends who never lost hope. Protecting the civil rights of all Americans is one of the FBI’s highest missions, whether the violations occurred four days ago or forty years ago.”
If you have any knowledge of the events surrounding the death of any individual listed above, please call the FBI’s Jackson Office at 601-948-5000. Frederick T. Brink, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Mississippi, stated, “We will explore every lead and every tip provided to us in our effort to bring closure to these cases. The FBI, together with our federal, state and local partners, will work diligently in these cases to uncover the truth, should it be hidden, and to bring to justice anyone who so heinously violates the rights of our citizens.”
Donald Rasberry, 1965
In Okolona, Mississippi, Donald Rasberry was shot to death by his boss. No other information could be found pertaining to his murder.
Other names listed included Jimmie Lee, who was shot near Selma, Alabama by police following a protest, and James Reeb, a minister from Boston who travelled South to Selma to join the movement beaten to death by white townsmen. Their stories were recently featured in Ava DuVernay’s ‘Selma’.
Again, let us not forget those who became victims of hate in our nation’s history.
Until the next post,