Jerry Mitchell of Mississippi Gets MacArthur 'Genius' Grant

By: The Associated Press and E&P Staff Scientists, artists and journalists are among this year's recipients of the MacArthur Foundation's $500,000 "Genius Grants."

The winners were announced today by the Chicago-based foundation that has been awarding the grants for nearly 30 years.

Among the winners is a Mississippi newspaper reporter named Jerry Mitchell whose work over the last 20 years has been instrumental in bringing to justice people involved in slayings during the Civil Rights era.

Another recipient is 42-year-old John Rogers of Urbana, Ill. He's an applied physicist who is a leader in developing flexible electronic devices.

The winners can use the money however they please, but many say they plan on using it to help them continue their work. An excerpt from the Clarion-Ledger's report follows.

"The purpose of the program is to promote creativity across a great range of fields in the interest of improving the human condition," foundation president Bob Gallucci said.

To free up that creativity, the foundation is awarding Mitchell and the other MacArthur Fellows no-strings-attached $500,000 grants. Mitchell said he would use the money, distributed over the next five years, to continue his work on unsolved civil rights-era crimes and complete a book.

"There are a lot of rabbit trails I want to run down," he said.

Mitchell is the first reporter in Mississippi to win the award. Past MacArthur winners from Mississippi have included former Mayersville Mayor Unita Blackwell in 1992 and Dr. Aaron Shirley of Jackson in 1993.

Mitchell said he may take periodic breaks from The Clarion-Ledger to devote more time to the work, although he said he will publish the findings in the pages of the paper that has employed him since 1986. The award is paid in quarterly installments over five years, beginning in 2010.

"I speak for the entire Clarion-Ledger family when I say that Jerry's latest honor solidifies his position as one of the nation's top journalists," said Larry K. Whitaker, The Clarion-Ledger's president and publisher. "This is an incredible accomplishment that is a result of Jerry's dogged reporting and his refusal to give up on cases others considered unsolvable. We couldn't be prouder of this outstanding achievement."

Mitchell, 50, has spent the past two decades reporting on unpunished violence during the civil rights movement in Mississippi and the South, beginning with the 1963 killing of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Mitchell's investigation ended in the 1994 conviction of Evers' assassin, Byron De La Beckwith.

"It never would have happened without Jerry," Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, said.

Former Gov. William Winter said Mitchell's reporting on civil rights gave hope for justice to African Americans and "pricked the conscience" of white Mississippians who lived through the era.

"Jerry has made an incomparable contribution to opening the eyes to so many of us who had been generally aware of the civil rights abuses of the past but who never had it focused so clearly as he has been able to do. As a result there are those who have been brought to justice who otherwise would not have been made to answer for their crimes," he said. "We will be a better society for his reporting."

Mitchell said he couldn't have done any of this work "without the support of my newspaper, my colleagues, my editors and especially my boss, Debbie Skipper. I always tell people I have the best boss in the world and the best job in the world."

Skipper, Clarion-Ledger assistant managing editor, said she is energized by Mitchell's passion for his work. Clarion-Ledger Executive Editor Ronnie Agnew said he views the award as the pinnacle of Mitchell's career.


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