VOL. 132 | NO. 133 | Thursday, July 6, 2017
Morris Recalls Brother’s Violent Death and Rage
By Bill Dries
Charlie Morris, 96, tells the story of his brother’s death in Arlington in 1939. Morris says Jessie Lee Bond was killed after asking for a receipt at the town’s general store. A new state committee is reviewing a move toward a commission to reopen old unsolved cases of racially motivated violence. (Daily News/Bill Dries)
“Actually, the truth has never been told,” Charlie Morris said this week as he talked about the violent death of his brother 78 years ago in Arlington. Morris, now 96 years old, had family and friends gathered around him at the Memphis Branch NAACP headquarters Monday, July 3, as he marked the new state law that could reopen the investigation into the death of Jessie Lee Bond and other cold cases from the long arc of the civil rights movement.
The statute, which creates a study committee that could lead to the creation of a state cold case commission, was recently signed into law by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. Morris couldn’t make it to the signing ceremony in Nashville but talked this week about the importance of trying to resolve the controversial cases.
“Jessie was the victim of prejudice and racism,” he said. “I tried to get it out of my mind. But after all these years it lingers there. That was my brother.”
The bill was sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Johnnie Turner of Memphis and state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville. Turner counts it as a major goal of her tenure as a legislator.
“We don’t expect them to be alive,” Turner said of those who might be identified as involved in the deaths. “We want the story told.
“There are untold stories because people really had no hope that anything would be done about it,” she said. “Or it is so painful that they have repressed it all these years. Even if we don’t do any more than to give people an expression of how they feel about the horrible things done to them and give them closure this will have served its purpose.”
In the case of Bond, he was a sharecropper who, according to Morris, dared to ask for an invoice from the Wilson general store in Arlington’s town square after he made his regular purchase of items there on credit. He got the invoice for $13.90.
“Back then, they didn’t give you an invoice. They put it on the ledger,” Morris said. “Nobody had never asked for an invoice. At the end of the year, they would say you’ve got a little bit left over. In other words, you never got out of debt.”
A day later Bond was called back to the store, according to Morris, for daring to question a white merchant. He took his sister, Morris’ aunt, with him who witnessed what followed.
“They shot at him and shot him. He ran out to the outhouse. They riddled the outhouse,” Morris said of what his aunt told him. “And when he staggered out of the outhouse, they threw him down and they castrated him and dragged him to the river.”
The family was told he drowned and that there were no marks on his body.
Morris, who was 18 years old at the time and a senior at Manassas High School, was told what happened when he got to his grandmother’s house.
“She had a 32 revolver and four bullets. I got to Eads and my grandmother’s house and she begged me not to go to Arlington,” Morris said. “I listened to her, but at that point I didn’t care about nothing but getting the people who killed my brother.”
His aunt, who was with Bond, told him in detail what happened and made him promise not to tell anyone. She feared she would be killed or at the very least lose her job as a school teacher.
“Those who would report became victims,” said state Rep. G.A. Hardaway. “And who could you tell? The murders, the rapes, the lynching were actually conducted under the color of law by the legal authorities.”
Morris kept the promise to his aunt for decades but it wasn’t an easy promise to keep. He wiped tears from his eyes as he talked about his rage.
“I went to bed wanting to kill somebody. I’d get up wanting to kill somebody. I’d go to a job and my supervisor would say, ‘Good morning, Charlie.’ I would say, ‘What’s so damn good about it,’” Morris remembered. “I had an attitude that was affecting my life, that was affecting me.”
That changed when he came home to find a Bible open on his coffee table.
“That was my answer. The Lord said, ‘Let me take care of it,’” Morris said. “I began to get the hatred out of me. I began to pray that I could love everybody and treat everybody like I wanted to be treated. And you see me today. God has blessed me.”
Bond died a year before Elbert Williams, who had organized an NAACP chapter in Haywood County, was killed there and his body dumped in the Hatchie River. His family was not allowed to see his body and he was ordered buried in an unmarked grave the same day his body was pulled from the river.
Williams’ death is another possible case that a cold case commission could investigate. The task force established by the statute will make further recommendations on whether there should be a commission and what criteria it should use.