By: Joe Strupp
Anyone who has examined civil rights-era murder cases knows Jerry Mitchell. Without him, many of those 1960s crimes would never have made the news again. While Mitchell, 50, was just a child in the 1960s when many of the most hateful killings in the South were committed, he brought them back to prominence as an adult.
During the past 20 years, the investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., has dug up new evidence in numerous cases, resulting in convictions in four of the most infamous crimes. His work, which has earned many accolades ? including a Pulitzer Prize finalist spot ? reached a pinnacle in September when he received the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant,” a whopping $500,000 prize.
Speaking about the prosecutions resulting from his work, Mitchell says, “I am pleased that things have happened. I view it in terms of the [victims’] families, them finding justice after all these years. Getting with the families and seeing their reactions. That means more to me than any of the awards.”
Mitchell “does it the old-fashioned way ? developing sources, going through documents, thousands of documents ? when most people would be bored,” says Ronnie Agnew, the Clarion-Ledger’s executive editor for the past nine years. “It doesn’t win us any friends. But it is the right thing to do.”
The most well-known case Mitchell has brought to light may be the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in Philadelphia, Miss. ? which served as the basis for the semi-fictional 1989 movie Mississippi Burning. Mitchell went to see it with several FBI agents who had worked on the case. “It is a microcosm for a lot of the stuff that happened back then,” he says. “I saw the movie and could not believe that nobody had ever been prosecuted for murder in that case.”
That set him off. Mitchell began looking into the murders, which had resulted in conspiracy charges against 18 people, with seven convicted in 1967, but none for murder. One of those convicted was Sam Bowers, a former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard. Mitchell’s research found Bowers had given an interview to the Mississippi State Archives that was not to be released until his death. Mitchell got a hold of the interview, in which Bowers stated he was “quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator for the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man.”
That instigator was Edgar Ray Killen, whom Mitchell probed further, digging up enough evidence for prosecutors to try and convict him in 2005 on three counts of manslaughter for the murders. He was sentenced to 60 years.
“As a journalist, you feel good when things in the dark get exposed in the light and justice is done,” Mitchell says. The story earned him a finalist nod in the 2006 Pulitzer Prizes.
During his time at the Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell also brought justice in three other major cases:
* Bowers’ 1998 conviction for another crime, ordering the 1966 firebombing that killed N.A.A.C.P. official Vernon Dahmer Sr.
* Byron De La Beckwith’s 1994 conviction for the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers.
* The conviction of Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002 for the killing of four black girls in a Birmingham, Ala., church in 1963.
Mitchell’s reporting experience prior to Jackson spans several southern dailies, including The Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs, Ark., and the former Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock (now the Democrat-Gazette). His first Clarion-Ledger beat was Tupelo, Miss., bureau chief, reporting from Elvis Presley’s hometown. He recalled oddball stories that ranged from a weekly paper running a contest celebrating the “first legitimate baby of the year” to a couple who were married nine weeks after the man shot the woman in the head several times at a drive-in theater.
“I wasn’t aware of the civil rights movement as much growing up,” says the Texarkana, Texas, native, since “I was a young child when these things happened.” But his later research drew him in, even to the point where threats became routine and some editors didn’t want him to look into the cases. “There was an editor here early on who didn’t want me doing it,” Mitchell recalls, declining to name the departed boss. “He said it wasn’t much of a story.” Mitchell says the FBI is still investigating at least one recent string of threats.
Married with two grown children, Mitchell says he has had offers to move on to larger newspapers ? The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution among them ? but turned them down because he wants assurance he could stay on his beat: “I want to be here at least until the story is done.”
These days, neither his recent awards nor threats will stop Mitchell. He says he has a book in the works about digging up such stories, and he’s working with several other journalists on The Civil Rights Cold Case Project with the Center for Investigative Reporting. He hopes to include documentaries, a Web site and continued investigations of many of these cases. Among those leading the effort is Hank Klibanoff, former managing editor of the Journal-Constitution and co-author of The Race Beat, which won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for chronicling early civil rights coverage.
“Jerry has done something no one else has been able to do,” Klibanoff says of Mitchell’s prosecutorial results. “He has done it not just by being a tough, hard-nosed investigative reporter ? he is a decent and devoted human being.”
Mitchell points out that there are still four suspects in the original Mississippi Burning case who remain free. “The window is closing pretty quickly, I want to do what I can before it is too late,” he says of that case. “There are also some other rabbit holes I want to go down. I have always had the mentality that I react negatively to bullies.”