Out of the Past
Jerry Mitchell has an unusual beat. The reporter for Jackson, Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger specializes in uncovering new evidence about unsolved civil rights-era murders. His stories have helped lead to arrests in long-dormant cases.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
Jerry Mitchell was 4 years old in 1963 when Medgar Evers pulled his baby blue Oldsmobile into the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, and stepped out carrying an armful of "Jim Crow Must Go" T-shirts. An assassin lurked in the shadows, aiming a high-powered rifle through a tangle of honeysuckle, angling for a clear shot.
Forty-two years later, on a gray, misty afternoon, Mitchell is standing on the spot--hallowed ground, he calls it--where Evers dragged his body, leaving smears of blood, as he struggled to reach the front stoop. When Mitchell talks about the slain civil rights leader, he sounds as if he is speaking of his own next of kin.
A single bullet blasted through Evers' chest and shattered a pane of glass over there, Mitchell is saying, pointing to a window in the house. It smashed through a wall, hit the refrigerator and landed on a kitchen counter. He moves to where 8-year-old Reena begged, "Get up, daddy," as the NAACP field secretary lay face down, life draining away. Mitchell directs my eyes across the street, to where the assassin tossed the gun before fleeing into the darkness.
Byron De La Beckwith, known to brag of his Ku Klux Klan exploits, might have lived out his years a free man if Mitchell had not grown up to be a crack investigative reporter with a pit bull ferocity and a penchant for tracking killers from the most violent days of the civil rights era.
Thanks to new evidence in secret documents leaked to Mitchell, the long-stalled case was reopened in October 1989. Beckwith, 73, was indicted for Evers' murder 14 months later. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison; he died after serving nearly seven years.
The unrepentant Beckwith was the first KKK hit man that Mitchell, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, helped put behind bars. He would not be the last.
His most recent target was Edgar Ray Killen, 80, a Baptist minister and former Klan leader indicted in January for a triple killing in 1964 that stunned the nation. Killen, the alleged point man in the conspiracy, is the first person charged with the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, civil rights workers whose bodies were found under tons of earth at a dam in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Mitchell's reporting helped build the case against Killen.
The mild-mannered, Bible-quoting journalist has given new definition to historical investigative reporting, digging back in time to document unsolved crimes. Dredging up Mississippi's violent past has been a major part of Mitchell's beat since 1989.
The reporter has uncovered long-forgotten FBI records, yellowed court documents and flawed investigations by inept local authorities, often with Klan ties. He has smoked out witnesses on the back roads of Mississippi and pieced together crime scenes through detailed interviewing and tedious research. He even gets suspected murderers to join him for dinner.
Mitchell once sat across from Killen and his wife in a Walnut Grove, Mississippi, restaurant, enjoying an $8.95, all-you-can-eat catfish dinner, then wrote stories that helped get Killen indicted. He declined an invitation to Killen's home, opting for a public meeting place "to be on the safe side."
His character as a pesky reporter has been immortalized in "Ghosts of Mississippi," Hollywood's version of the reopening of the Evers case. When he spoke at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in 2000, he was introduced as "the South's Simon Wiesenthal," a reference to the indefatigable Nazi hunter.
Over the years, his work has drawn high praise. Journalist and author David Halberstam labels Mitchell, 46, "an American hero" for tackling an important story and staying with it. When Mitchell was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize this year, Halberstam, who covered the civil rights movement for Nashville's Tennessean, wrote a letter on his behalf. "It's great journalism and great personal witness," Halberstam told me. "There's something extraordinary about him."
Hailed by colleagues as dogged and courageous, Mitchell also has been cursed as a "white traitor." Earlier this year, a letter to the editor suggested Mitchell be "tarred, feathered and run out of Mississippi" because of his reporting on Killen. Critics accuse the Clarion-Ledger of pouring salt on old wounds and rekindling national loathing for the Magnolia State.
Says longtime Jackson lawyer James G. McIntyre: "It is a sad day for Mississippi, for all its citizens and for all those who condone this. There is no good that will come of it." He accuses the paper of wanting the sensational cases reopened because it sells newspapers.
What drives Mitchell's obsession with exposing these self-appointed executioners who terrorized black Mississippians?
"It is a matter of justice," says the reporter, who once proofread phone books in Orange County, California, to eke out a living while trying to break into the screenwriting business. "It stuck in my craw that they were getting away with murder."
Jerry Mitchell, raised in Texarkana, Texas, with ancestral ties to Mississippi, did not grow up rooted in the fight for racial equality.
His epiphany came in 1989 when he saw the movie "Mississippi Burning," a dramatization of the Klan killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.
By the time Mitchell left the theater, the horrifying images of Klan violence had gripped his consciousness. "Frankly--I say this and my wife gets on to me--but I am a Southerner and I knew zero about the civil rights movement back then," admits the reporter, who has become a walking encyclopedia on murder, torture and intimidation in a state that once abetted brutality against its own citizens.
His parents taught him that God saw everyone as equal, but "I just didn't notice the things happening around me."
Mitchell, who joined the Clarion-Ledger in 1986, was on the courts beat when he saw that fateful movie. He continued to cover the courts but began reporting on civil rights as well. In 1994, he became an investigative reporter. Mitchell says he has "certainly written other stories, done other projects," but civil rights "has remained my devotion, so to speak."
He spent much of 1989 wheedling his way into the clandestine network that continued to shield Mississippi's past. Then came the payoff. One day, a familiar voice on the telephone said, "Come see me, Jerry." He walked away with 2,400 pages of highly secret documents from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commis-sion, a segregationist spy agency, as he describes it.
"I loaded them into my little Honda, and when I drove away, I was higher than a kite," recalls Mitchell. "I didn't even drive back to the newsroom. I pulled over to the first pay phone, called in and said, 'I've got them.'"
The files turned out to be a bonanza, with references to Klan killings, including names and details of how they were carried out. They described the infiltration of civil rights groups and the surveillance of outsiders. "Some of it was very scary; some of it was Keystone Cops," says Mitchell, who was seeing just a tiny portion of the files. In total, there were some 132,000 pages of commission records, most of them unseen by outsiders at the time.
The copies slipped to him contained some of the most damning material. He learned that at the same time the state was prosecuting Beckwith for Evers' murder back in the 1960s, the sovereignty commission, headed by Gov. Ross Barnett, was secretly assisting the defense. Two hung juries allowed Beckwith to remain free.
Based on the new revelations, Evers' wife, Myrlie, lobbied for the case to be reopened. At the time, Mitchell felt it was a "one-in-a-million shot" as he acted as go-between with Myrlie Evers, whose trust he had gained, and a young assistant district attorney who took up the cause. He marvels that Beckwith was indicted 14 months after his first story.
When the jury returned a verdict, Mitchell was in a courtroom balcony with a throng of media. He remembers Myrlie Evers and her children shouting, "Yes!" when, at last, the killer was found guilty. "I felt chills going down my spine. It was the most amazing thing I ever witnessed," recalls the reporter, who also felt a surge of relief.
"I worried that if the jury came back deadlocked, people would say, 'Jerry, what did you do this for? You're just making Mississippi look bad.' I put an extreme amount of pressure on myself with this case. Maybe I have learned to emotionally distance myself from it a bit."
A few days later, a sheriff told the reporter that as Beckwith was taken to jail, he kept muttering two words over and over: Jerry Mitchell. "If I were you, Jerry," the sheriff told him, "I'd go home a different way each night."
For years, Mitchell had worked to prove the involvement of Sam Bowers, a former Klan imperial wizard, in the January 1966 death of civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer. The farmer and black businessman died of burns after his Hattiesburg, Mississippi, home was set on fire. News accounts told how Dahmer stood amid flames, firing a shotgun at the Klan night riders as his wife and children escaped.
An FBI investigation at the time led to 14 Klansmen being charged with arson and murder. Bowers was freed three times as a result of hung juries. In early 1998, Mitchell learned from a confidential source about a conversation in which Bowers had talked about ordering the attack.
The trail led to Billy Roy Pitts, sentenced to life in prison for taking part in the Dahmer raid. During the course of his reporting, Mitchell learned that Pitts had never served a day for the crime. Mississippi authorities claimed the convicted murderer was in a witness protection program. When Mitchell checked, he learned that no such program existed at the time of the sentencing.
He popped Pitts' name into Switchboard.com and tracked him to a telephone number in Denham Springs, Louisiana. The former Klansman was shocked when the reporter called and began peppering him with questions. "He spent the first 20 minutes of the conversation asking, 'How did you find me?'" recalls Mitchell. "I told him I used the Internet."
Mitchell's investigation triggered a warrant for Pitts' arrest. On the lam, he took time to mail a half-hour audiotape to Mitchell that said, "Jerry, I just want you to know you've ruined my life. But I promised you that if I talked to anybody, I'd talk to you." He proceeded to relate details about the Dahmer murder and other Klan crimes.
A few days later, Pitts turned himself in and became a key witness against Bowers, who was arrested with coconspirator Deavours Nix. According to Mitchell, Nix showed up in the courtroom in a wheelchair, sucking oxygen through a tube. The judge took pity and released him without bond.
"So, a dozen days later, he's out playing golf, and we get a picture of him in the middle of his backswing. We ran the picture with a headline that read, 'Ex-Klansman says he's too sick for jail but not for golf,'" Mitchell recalls with a chuckle.
Bowers was sentenced to life in prison in August 1998. Nix was charged with arson but died of cancer before he could be tried.
In 1996, the FBI was taking another look at Bobby Frank Cherry, one of the last living suspects in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church that killed four little girls. Robert Chambliss, known as Dynamite Bob, had been the only person convicted of the bombing. Mitchell, who previously had contacted Cherry and written about the case, phoned for an update. Cherry's wife responded with an e-mail message in July 1999 inviting the reporter to their Texas home.
"I said, 'Sure, I would love to talk to you,'" recalls Mitchell, who spent six hours with Cherry, some of it over a barbecue lunch.
During that interview, Cherry made a critical mistake. He repeated his routine alibi that he was home watching wrestling on TV at the time of the attack. Upon returning to the newsroom, Mitchell asked librarian Susan Gray to call the Birmingham News to check the TV logs for September 15, 1963.
When he arrived at his desk the next day, he found a message from Gray: "THERE WAS NO WRESTLING!" "Route 66," sure, and "Films of the '50s," but no wrestling. Cherry stuck to his story. "Son of a bitch, something's wrong. Wrestling was on," he said when Mitchell called him for a comment.
"For three and a half decades, his alibi had gone unchallenged," Mitchell says with a shrug. "It was just Reporting 101."
The reporter also learned that Cherry might have been involved in the vicious beating of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights activist, when he tried to enroll his children in an all-white Birmingham school in 1957.
"I found out there was video of this beating in a CBS documentary, and I got a copy of it," relates Mitchell. Cherry's son "is a truck driver, so when he came through Jackson, I had him stop by and look at the footage. He said, 'Yep, that's dad.' He pointed to where [Cherry] was pulling brass knuckles out of his pocket before hitting Shuttlesworth."
The video and the discrepancy in the TV schedule were presented as evidence in the trial. Charged with murder, Cherry was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to life. He died in prison in November 2004.
For four decades, no one had been charged with murder in the deaths of the three civil rights workers.
Since there were no federal murder statutes, 19 Klansmen, including Edgar Ray Killen, were indicted instead on federal conspiracy charges in February 1967. A hung jury set Killen free later that year. The state never pursued charges until Killen's January indictment.
Mitchell had been reporting on the case of the three civil rights workers since 1989. His break came in late 1998 when he persuaded a source to let him read the transcript of a secret taped interview given to state archivists in the 1980s by Sam Bowers, one of those convicted in the 1967 federal conspiracy trial and a key assailant in the Dahmer case. The documents were to remain sealed until after Bowers' death.
Bowers admitted he had thwarted justice in the deaths of the civil rights workers and was quoted as saying he was "happy to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man." Mitchell was convinced he was referring to Edgar Ray Killen.
By February 2004, Mitchell had gathered enough evidence to write that confessions from Klansmen implicated Killen in the deaths of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman and that the Clarion-Ledger had uncovered eight potential new witnesses against him and Bowers for the murders.
Killen was indicted on January 6 and charged with three counts of murder and released on $250,000 bond. His trial is set for April 18.
During the course of his investigation, Mitchell obtained the autopsy reports and crime photos of the three victims. He was shocked when he saw the body of James Chaney, who was black.
"The Klan didn't just kill him, they tortured him before he died. I didn't remember reading this anywhere," says Mitchell, who wrote a detailed description of how Chaney was treated differently from the other two men, who were white. Both of Chaney's arms were broken and there was trauma to the groin area. "It was as if they hated him more."
Former Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus credits Mitchell's reporting with keeping these horrors from "falling into the dustbin of history."
Prosecutors, victims' relatives and human rights advocates had pushed for indictments over the years, but "Jerry is the person who can legitimately make the claim" that he made a difference, says Molpus, who gave a stirring public apology to the families of the three slain civil rights workers while he was in office in 1989. "Jerry's shyness and modesty belie the tenacity behind his work."
Molpus finds it ironic that the 95,000-circulation Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper that "fanned the flames of racism for decades," has become the driving force behind identifying the killers in long-dormant civil rights cases. As part of his assignment, Mitchell has chronicled the paper's past complicity in maintaining the segregationist status quo.
In sovereignty commission documents, he found evidence that Mississippi's largest and most influential newspaper published racial propaganda at the commission's request. Editors killed stories when asked to, and the paper championed segregation on the editorial pages and served as a mouthpiece for firebrands like Gov. Ross Barnett. So did the Clarion-Ledger's sister paper, the now-defunct Jackson Daily News.
"I was horrified," says Mitchell of his discovery. "I tried to dig out all our dirty laundry."
The Jackson papers "were not just the handmaidens of white supremacy and resistance to integration, they were architects and critical players," says Hodding Carter III, former editor of Greenville, Mississippi's Delta-Democrat Times and now president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In a region where many papers flunked the basic tenets of journalism, the Clarion-Ledger "was the worst among the really bad ones."
Carter says Mitchell is a "great example of what hard-assed digging and a refusal to back away from stories which are considered too old-hat or too uncomfortable can accomplish."
The Clarion-Ledger changed dramatically for the better in 1973, when Rea Hederman, a member of the third generation to run the family-owned enterprise, took over. Gannett bought the newspaper in 1982.
Executive Editor Ronnie Agnew says that without Mitchell's reporting, "investigators would have looked the other way, the community certainly would have, and [these cases] would have dropped off the nation's radar screen." The 42-year-old son of a sharecropper, a Mississippi native, is the first African American to run the Clarion-Ledger newsroom.
Agnew cites the powerful impact of Mitchell's reporting over the years. In a letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board, he noted that since 1989, authorities in Mississippi and five other states have reexamined 23 killings from the civil rights era and made 27 arrests, leading to 21 convictions. Not all were the result of Mitchell's reporting, but the cascade began after the reopening of the Evers case.
"The South, starting with Mississippi, was willing to take a look at itself and realized that people got away with murder," says Mitchell. "It is a social phenomenon. You can't really argue any different."
The civil rights stance has become part of the heart and soul of the paper, says Editorial Director David Hampton. "With Jerry's reporting, it's not one dramatic incident. It's something that's been going on for years as part of our coverage."
Mitchell has drawn a national spotlight to the paper's efforts to right the wrongs of the past. He has appeared on ABC's "Nightline," PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," the "CBS Evening News" and CNN. In 1999, he won the Sidney Hillman Award for investigating social justice issues. That same year, when he accepted the Newspaper Guild's Heywood Broun Award for his reporting on the Vernon Dahmer case, Mitchell opened his speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., by saying, "This is kind of overwhelming for a good ole Southern boy."
At dusk on a slow Tuesday, Mitchell is sitting in his claustrophobic cubicle in the Clarion-Ledger newsroom, surrounded by images of those who inspire him. Photos of his wife, son and daughter are positioned to the right of his iMac. On the left, Medgar Evers peers from a program marking the 40th anniversary of his murder.
The eyes staring out from his computer monitor have a jarring effect. He has chosen the original FBI reward poster with headshots of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner as a screen saver. The three have been an intimate part of his workspace since 2001, when it appeared the case might be at a dead end. "It was a visual reminder to me not to forget about them," says Mitchell, who has stayed in touch with some of the victims' relatives.
In between fielding phone calls and thumbing through one of his six Rolodexes, he explains how he gets people like Beckwith and Killen to open up. One sure-fire method: Take them out for barbecue or catfish.
In 1999, when he called to set up an interview with Killen, the sawmill operator said he was busy chopping wood and couldn't meet during the day. He suggested that Mitchell come to his home at night. "I said, 'No, that's OK.' I thought a public place would be better," the reporter recalls. "So, I said, 'Why don't I take you and your wife out for dinner? Do you like catfish?'"
"I love catfish," was Killen's reply.
When they met, Killen denied being a Klan member. Then, as he deboned his fish, he referred to Schwerner, Goodman and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as communists and admitted that his views on race had not changed. "I'm as strong for social separation as I ever was," he told Mitchell. Killen quoted the Bible to justify his opposition to intermarriage.
"I really did want to hear Killen's side of the story. If he had said, 'I've had a change of heart and I was wrong in the '60s,' I would have printed that. I'm not out after 'gotcha' interviews. You break bread with people, they feel more relaxed and at ease. They open up," says Mitchell, who operates on the theory that "everybody wants to tell their story, even Klansmen.
"In a sense, you appeal to their vanity. You may have to appeal to motives you even don't like. That's just the way you have to operate. It doesn't mean you are on the same page with them."
For instance, he made a point of not reacting when Beckwith used the n-word. Instead, he sat quietly, listening intently. "I am almost kind of chameleon-like," says the reporter, who takes a "give them enough rope and let them hang themselves" tack.
Despite the threats he has received, Mitchell says he does not live in fear of retribution from racists. "Maybe it sounds rather fatalistic, but if they kill me, they kill me. I am not trying to sound like Mr. Brave. I try not to do anything stupid. My faith plays a big role. I really believe God's hand has been in this."
Mitchell was in the newsroom writing a story one Saturday in March 1998 when a voice on the phone delivered a chilling threat: "Do you think we're going to let you go unscathed? I know where you live... You're a traitor, you know that?" said the caller, adding menacingly, "I know the names of your wife and children." Authorities tracked the call to South Carolina.
When Mitchell visited Byron De La Beckwith for a six-hour interview in his Signal Mountain, Tennessee, home in 1990, he noticed a gold-plated rifle propped up against the door. He photographed Medgar Evers' killer on the front porch of his wood frame house, holding a Bible and standing in front of a Confederate flag. Mitchell felt uneasy when, after dark, Beckwith insisted on walking him to his car.
Speaking in a slow drawl, he told the reporter that if he wrote positive things about white Christians, God would reward him. If not, he would be punished. "And, if God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for him," Beckwith said that night.
"He was," says Mitchell, "the absolutely most racist person I ever spent time with."
It is Wednesday, 11:15 a.m., and the journalist is on his way to a library on the outskirts of Jackson to deliver a talk to a crowd of about 25. After he finishes, an elderly woman raises her hand, not to ask a question but to share a moment from her past.
Alean McIntyre-Adams grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the three civil rights workers were slain. "I was right in the heart of what was going on," she tells Mitchell, describing her own terrifying experiences with the Klan. She asks if he will pose with her for a photograph. "I praise them. It is a most wonderful thing," she says of the Clarion-Ledger's crusade for justice.
Mitchell is back in his dark green Honda, speculating about what comes next. "Your guess is as good as mine," he says. "I perceive that I am nearing the end this time."
He recalls that he made a similar pronouncement after he helped put Sam Bowers behind bars in 1998. At the moment, he doesn't see any viable cases "falling from the sky." Then the conversation turns to the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, beaten, shot in the head and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, near Money, Mississippi. Two people were found not guilty of his murder in 1955. No one has been convicted in the case.
"I am poking around with Till," he says, "but I am pessimistic it can actually come to fruition." Too much time has passed, and there was pitifully little investigation at the time of the crime.
Then, as has happened so many times before, a surge of optimism kicks in. "Maybe there is someone alive that has been involved and never identified," Mitchell says. "You never know, there might be a witness who would come forward and tell what they saw. So, no, I have not given up hope."
This one "will be a tough rabbit trail to chase," the reporter adds, as he heads back to the newsroom.
Senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi wrote about coverage of genocide in Sudan in AJR's February/March issue.