Exposing the Secrets of Mississippi Racism  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 1991

Exposing the Secrets of Mississippi Racism   

To the dismay of some, the Clarion-Ledger is mining the bitter past: the Medgar Evers murder, state spies and its own unsavory record.

By Marcel Dufresne
Marcel Dufresne is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut.      


On June 23, 1963, two days after avowed white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was first arrested in the ambush murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the hometown Clarion-Ledger led its story with a curious headline: "Californian is Charged with Murder of Evers."

Curious because the headline obscured the fact that Beckwith, a California-born fertilizer salesman with a record of racist activities, had deep roots in the South and lived most of his life in Greenwood, Mississippi, 90 miles north of Jackson. The headline became the most quoted in the paper's 154-year history, symbolizing an alliance with segregationists that had earned it the nickname "The Klan-Ledger" from civil rights advocates in Mississippi during the 1950s and '60s.

A quarter century after two separate murder trials of Beckwith ended in hung juries, it was a far different Clarion-Ledger that led the charge beginning two years ago to reopen the Evers case, one of the most notorious murders in the racially explosive '60s. Back then the paper was owned by the powerful Hederman family, which had no qualms about slanting the news in its substantial newspaper holdings across Mississippi to reflect its opposition to integration. In what some think is a fitting irony, the Clarion-Ledger was purchased in 1982 by Gannett, a chain with an aggressive policy of hiring and promoting blacks, and of covering minority communities. Today, the paper has one of the few black managing editors in the country, and at least three times the national average of black professionals in its newsroom.

The paper's campaign to reopen the Evers murder case began on October 1, 1989, with disclosures from secret state government files that state spies had investigated prospective jurors in Beckwith's second trial and turned the information over to his defense lawyers. Three days later, an editorial urged county prosecutors to reopen the case, and a series of follow-up stories added fuel to the case against Beckwith. Before the month was out, the Hinds County district attorney said he would reexamine the case and possibly convene a new grand jury. Fourteen months later, the feisty Beckwith, now 70 and living in Tennessee, was indicted to stand trial a third time. (Double jeopardy doesn't apply in the Beckwith case because he was never acquitted; prosecutors simply chose not to try him again after the second trial ended in a hung jury in 1964.)

The Evers case is just one example of the paper's dogged determination to unearth hidden events in Mississippi's painfully racist past. On the 25th anniversary of the murder of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the paper pushed prosecutors to reopen that case. Then the paper reported that agents for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency dedicated to fighting integration, had spied on one of the slain workers three months before they were killed.

The paper even turned its reporting on itself, revealing the paper's complicity in battling integration during the 1950s and '60s. Writing from a huge cache of leaked Sovereignty Commission records, the paper documented what most people always suspected, that the Clarion-Ledger 's previous management often conspired with the state to preserve segregation and undermine civil rights leaders. The files also gave readers their first inside look at the commission's clandestine program of harassing and spying on civil rights advocates and ordinary citizens who supported integration.

The paper's coverage comes as Mississippi is struggling to reverse its lingering image as backwards and racist. The coverage also figures prominently in a process of public contrition and catharsis. During a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Philadelphia murders, Secretary of State Dick Molpus told nearly a thousand people at the highly publicized gathering, "We deeply regret what happened here 25 years ago. We wish we could undo it."

As the paper's own reporting showed, the old Clarion-Ledger had plenty to be sorry for. "It must have been about the worst newspaper in the world in the '60s," says Cliff Sessions, a Mississippi native and former UPI bureau manager in Jackson who left for Washington after his friend Evers was killed. Recently retired, Sessions has moved back to Mississippi after 26 years. "It's remarkable to me, having read the Clarion-Ledger back in the '60s, to see it now," he says.

The paper's campaign to expose, and perhaps right, old wrongs is applauded by black leaders, many whites, and journalists in and outside Mississippi. Daily circulation has climbed since TheClarion-Ledger merged with the Jackson Daily News in 1989, from 99,000 to 107,787.

But the coverage hasn't sat well with everyone, especially old-guard conservative readers who reject the notion of collective guilt. "That doesn't sell with me," says David Halbrook, a 24-year veteran of the state legislature. Halbrook, who is white, says many whites resent being made to feel guilty when they had no personal involvement in acts of racism or violence against blacks. "I don't think I've treated them that badly."

Readers also complain that resurrecting the ugly ghosts of the past only rekindles smoldering racial fears and animosities and diverts attention from the state's real problems, like education and poverty. "I don't think we need to ignore or blot out completely the past," says Halbrook. "But I don't think it will improve relations to keep that bubbling high in the public consciousness."

Medgar Evers arrived at his Jackson home just after midnight June 12, 1963, after a late NAACP meeting. As the 37-year-old field secretary for the state's largest civil rights group, Evers was its most visible activist, organizing boycotts and demonstrations in the racial tinderbox that Jackson was becoming. The assassin was waiting behind a tree 200 feet away when Evers' blue 1962 Oldsmobile turned into the driveway of his ranch-style house. As Evers closed the car door, a rifle shot ripped through his back below his right shoulder blade, then through a window and an inside wall of his house. Evers crawled to his front door and was lying there as his wife Myrlie opened it. He died on the way to the hospital.

The rifle was found hidden in brush behind the tree. A fingerprint expert identified a single print on the gun sight, that of its owner, Byron De La Beckwith. Beckwith claimed the gun had been stolen.

Reporter Jerry Mitchell was just four years old when Evers was killed. When he arrived in Mississippi 23 years later after growing up in Texas, the Evers case had long since disappeared from the news pages.

But Mitchell's curiosity about Mississippi's civil rights murders was piqued in January 1989 when he accompanied two FBI agents to a local press screening of the film, "Mississippi Burning." The agents had been in Jackson during the 1960s, and Mitchell wanted to get their reaction to the fictionalized account of the Philadelphia murders. (The two agents told Mitchell they liked the movie and thought it captured the violence and racial tension that gripped Mississippi during the '60s.)

Two months later the paper got a tip that several sealed documents of the Sovereignty Commission had been misfiled with public court records in the Federal District Court in Jackson. The tip led to a story by Mitchell, co-written with former staffer Joe O'Keefe, that showed a commission spy had infiltrated a civil rights coalition in 1964 and copied the files of volunteers who were registering voters during the upcoming Freedom Summer. The story was the first public disclosure from the long-sealed commission records, and it established Mitchell as an interested, even sympathetic, reporter to potential sources who knew what was inside the secret documents.

The local ACLU had been trying to open the files since 1977, when the Mississippi Legislature dissolved the commission and sealed its records until the year 2027. The federal court granted limited access to ACLU officials and people named in the records, provided they sign a pledge not to disclose what they'd seen. Anyone violating the pledge faced federal prosecution on contempt charges.

Mitchell's next peek at the files came in September, when a source leaked him documents revealing that the commission had spied on Michael Schwerner three months before he and two other civil rights workers were slain near Philadelphia. Mitchell's story reported that a county sheriff had kept Schwerner and his wife under surveillance for the commission and that the commission had circulated a description and the license number of the 1963 blue Ford station wagon used by the Schwerners and other workers for the Congress of Racial Equality. It wasn't clear from the files how long the surveillance lasted, but Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were last seen alive on June 21, 1964, when they were released from jail at 10:30 p.m. after Neshoba County police stopped the station wagon and arrested them for speeding.

Former commission officials rejected any culpability in the slayings, but Mitchell's story quoted a University of Mississippi history professor who suggested that the commission's actions may have encouraged the murders. "They may not have said, 'Go kill them,' but they sure made it easy," he said. Nineteen men were arrested in the case – seven were convicted of federal civil rights violations and an eighth pleaded guilty – but Mississippi has never prosecuted anyone for murder.

The second and ultimately most significant leak of documents came a few weeks later, this time concerning the Evers case. Mitchell's story revealed that a commission agent had gathered personal information on prospective jurors for Beckwith's second trial in 1964, and had turned its reports over to Beckwith's defense attorney. "The commission detailed their racial views, their ancestry and listed those likely to be 'fair and impartial,' including a White Citizens Council member," the paper wrote in a summary of its investigation. "'Fair' jurors made the panel; those with improper 'thinking' did not." The story raised the possibility of jury tampering by the commission and the paper pressed Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters to reopen the case. Peters investigated but said he could find no evidence of jury tampering. However, over the next 14 months prosecutors quietly reviewed evidence and interviewed witnesses in the decades-old Evers case.

Meanwhile, the paper printed dozens of stories. One disclosed that the rifle used to kill Evers, missing since 1969, had been in the possession of a Hinds County judge. Another showed that former Gov. J.P. Coleman had asked the Sovereignty Commission to spy on Evers in 1958.

One day Mitchell picked up his phone to hear a caller bellow, "What are you doing writing all this stuff about that dead nigger?" Others in the newsroom received similar calls.

Racist readers weren't the only ones angered by the coverage. U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr., who had jurisdiction over the commission files, was so incensed by the leaks that he reportedly asked the U.S. Attorney to convene a grand jury to investigate. That never happened, but FBI agents interviewed people with access to the files and questioned Mitchell about his sources.

The identities of Mitchell's sources were never even hinted at in print. The paper quoted directly from the files but told readers nothing about how they had been obtained. Today, all Mitchell will say is that the files came from several "disconnected" sources "who probably didn't even know that the others existed."

By mid-December, one of those sources trusted Mitchell enough to take the biggest risk yet. Mitchell had been trying for several months to persuade the source to provide more material from the files. One morning as they spoke (at a place Mitchell will not divulge), the source pointed to a stack of files sitting in plain view, and told Mitchell he could take them. Mitchell couldn't believe it: What he considered Mississippi's version of the Pentagon Papers weren't even locked up. Mitchell peered outside to see if anyone was watching, then loaded some 700 documents containing secrets the public wasn't supposed to hear until 2027 into his Honda hatchback. Back at the newsroom, Mitchell began reading while a secretary began photocopying. A few days later, he drove what became known in the newsroom as "the mother lode" back to his source.

The Sovereignty Commission files, locked in six file cabinets, were potential dynamite when the state legislature sealed them in 1977. They remained explosive in 1990, and the paper knew it. White public officials who had helped the commission fight integration faced political embarrassment or ruin, while blacks who accepted money to spy against other blacks feared repudiation by family and friends. Moreover, the paper knew that the files were filled with inaccuracies, rumors and unsubstantiated allegations.

The paper adopted guidelines before using someone's name: Any living person mentioned in the files, whether a spy or victim of spying, was approached for an interview. Victims who couldn't be reached were not identified. When possible, relatives of dead victims were interviewed. Spies still living were given a chance to explain their actions, and all spies, living or dead, were named. In the end, the paper used only a fraction of the information it had, which was just a fraction of the original files.

On January 28, 1990, "Mississippi's Secret Past," a series by Mitchell and reporters Leesha Cooper and Michael Rejebian, took readers inside the commission files and introduced them to the victims, both prominent and obscure, of the agency's spy activities. The stories reported that:

•The commission investigated hundreds of people, including teachers, preachers and students, for alleged civil rights leanings and subversive activities. Some of those people lost their jobs.

•The commission used dozens of spies, white and black, who infiltrated various organizations and helped collect incriminating information. Among the paid black informants were Percy Greene, the late editor of the weekly Jackson Advocate , Mississippi's largest black newspaper, and B.L. Bell, a prominent black educator.

•U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, who died in 1986, supplied the commission with the names of constituents who his office knew supported civil rights. The paper also detailed Eastland's role in forcing the resignation of the president of Tougaloo College, a private black college and a hotbed of early civil rights activities. Hoping to find links to communism, the Senate Judiciary Committee that Eastland chaired investigated the school's white president, A.D. Beittel, and other officials and faculty. When Eastland's probe turned up nothing, he urged the Sovereignty Commission to try the Louisiana UnAmerican Activities Committee, the commission's counterpart in that state and one of about a half dozen like it across the South. That agency supplied documents purporting to show that Beittel belonged to three "communist front" groups. The commission presented the information to the college's trustees and offered them a deal: Get rid of Beittel and Commission Director Erle Johnston Jr. would use his influence to keep the legislature from revoking the school's 94-year-old charter. Four days later Beittel was fired. Beittel, who is dead, was not a communist, the paper concluded.

•The president of a private black Methodist college, Earnest A. Smith, was described as "a known liar and ladies' man" in a 1964 commission report to the governor and trustees in an attempt to oust him. The report also said Smith had hired instructors who were "known or suspected homosexuals." The report named the instructors, but the newspaper didn't. Smith survived the smear campaign and resigned of his own choice in 1966, he told the paper.

•The commission planted a story in the Jackson Advocate tying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Communist Party, knowing that the story would be reprinted in Jackson's two daily newspapers. The scheme was outlined in a March 24, 1964, memo by Commission Director Johnston. "In this manner the story will be more effective because a Negro will be the author...The Sovereignty Commission will not appear in any of the publicity." The item was picked up by the Associated Press and put on its national wire.

The paper interviewed and carried stories about numerous citizens whose lives were invaded by the commission: a black high school teacher accused, incorrectly, of attending meetings in Jackson to plan civil rights demonstrations; a black dentist who was investigated after he sought admission to the Mississippi Dental Association; and a white preacher who was visited by two commission investigators after writing Eastland a letter urging him to support civil rights.

The series also spotlighted the paper's own ugly past. The Jackson papers "regularly killed stories and ran segregationist propaganda" at the commission's request, Mitchell wrote, and "willingly aided state officials' fight to keep whites in power." In one instance, the paper detailed commission documents that showed how the commission had managed to spike a news story about white children with a small percent of black blood who were kept out of Mississippi public schools for several years in the '60s. The commission supplied Editor Tom Hederman, now dead, with secret agency files and described Daily News Editor Jimmy Ward as having "excellent judgment on what not to print."

The commission routinely provided the newspapers with information for editorials, columns and news stories, and one reporter even was paid to subscribe to communist publications for the commission to review, the paper reported.

T o many in Mississippi, Byron De La Beckwith stands as a symbol of unrighted wrongs, a reminder of a time when juries were all-male and all-white, and when public officials could call blacks "niggers" in public. "Delay" Beckwith, as his friends called him, stood trial twice in 1964 for Evers' murder. His gun was used to kill Evers and witnesses placed his car in the vicinity that night. But two policemen from Greenwood testified that they saw Beckwith in that town about the time of the murder. Twice, juries couldn't reach a verdict and Beckwith went free.

The Clarion-Ledger continued to break important stories in the Evers case between October 1989, when commission files pertaining to the case were leaked to Mitchell, and Beckwith's third indictment last December. Dozens of articles appeared, many on the front page. A May 1990 story by Mitchell quoted a former Ku Klux Klan officer as saying that Beckwith had, during a Klan rally, admitted killing Evers.

The paper put heat on county prosecutors in June 1990 when it reported that they had hidden the fact that they had the rifle used to kill Evers. Prosecutors had insisted they didn't know where the rifle was, even though Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter had found the gun a few months earlier at the home of his late father-in-law, Hinds County Circuit Judge Russel D. Moore III.

In June 1990, ABC's "Prime Time Live" reported finding four new witnesses who said they saw Beckwith in Jackson the night Evers was murdered. The story refocused national attention on the case and kept pressure on prosecutors.

On December 17, the eve of Beckwith's indictment, the Clarion-Ledger gave readers an in-depth glimpse of the ailing white supremacist. Interviewed at his home in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, Beckwith denied killing Evers, as he had always done, then went on to spew a racial diatribe. "We need to reestablish a confederate state of America as a white Christian republic," Beckwith was quoted as saying. "We don't need any dark-skinned, yellow-skinned or blue-skinned mongrels running it."

The next day the paper published three pages about Beckwith's arrest and the Evers case. One of the stories quoted educators and black leaders as saying the renewed prosecution could "improve race relations in Mississippi and help the state's national image."

But critics would like to see the paper gear down what they view as obsessive attention to racial matters. David Halbrook, the white legislator, for example, cites coverage of the local custom of noting a customer's race on a check before cashing it. Focus on such issues, he believes, fuels racial discord and "is counterproductive if you're trying to improve race relations."

Wirt Yerger Jr., a white businessman and former chairman of the state Republican Party, believes the paper "looks at everything as race." In Yerger's view, the city council was fiscally irresponsible when, in awarding a contract, it skipped the low bidder in favor of a firm whose owners were black. Yet the Clarion-Ledger , he notes, applauded the action.

The paper's transformation from segregationist mouthpiece to investigative avenger actually began before Gannett bought it. A younger generation Hederman took over the news operation in 1973 in the person of 29-year-old Rea Hederman, a product of the graduate school of journalism at the University of Missouri. The paper soon hired its first black reporter, made blacks more visible in its news pages and began winning reporting awards. But something about Rea Hederman's regime unsettled his relatives. One day in 1982, he came to work to learn from his secretary that he'd been fired. Soon after, the paper was sold to Gannett. (Hederman is now owner and publisher of The New York Review of Books .)

Today 16 percent of the Clarion-Ledger 's newsroom professionals are black – below the Jackson metropolitan area ratio of 43 percent but at least triple the industry average. The managing editor, news editor and graphics director are black. But that doesn't mean coverage favors the black community, says black City Councilman Louis Armstrong. If anything, Armstrong says, most blacks feel "the paper deemphasizes race in most instances." Blacks were incensed by recent investigative coverage of financial problems at the predominantly black Jackson State College. Black leaders felt the stories unfairly blamed the school's black president, who resigned under pressure.

The paper's image clearly has been enhanced by its coverage of the Evers case and the Sovereignty Commission. Last year it won a first prize for investigative reporting from the Mississippi Press Association. After the indictments of Beckwith, its early stories on the case were noted in publications around the country.

Meanwhile, a Tennessee appeals court has ordered Beckwith extradited to Mississippi to stand trial a third time, but the state Supreme Court stayed the order pending a review.

Jerry Mitchell, whose reporting pried the case open, has left the paper but not the story. He plans to cover the trial of Beckwith, if there is a trial, and write a book on the case for Random House. (Two other books on the case are underway.)

Mitchell is not among those who fear that raking over the glowing coals of racism will create a new divisiveness. "As a white Southerner," he says, "I think we bear a certain guilt for what our relatives and others have done. Going back and exposing the past is one way to redress those wrongs." l

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