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September 01, 2000

Jerry Mitchell: Crusading for Justice Long Overdue

By R. Hayes Johnson, Jr.

Jerry is a dogged reporter and has a unique ability to get anyone to talk to him. He can get sources on all fronts because he's consistent and fair.

-Shawn McIntosh, executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger

Jerry has been very constructively relentless over the past decade in focusing like a laser beam on these unprosecuted civil rights movement-era killings. He has been a real help to those of us who wanted to look into those crimes. That kind of effort has led to our filing the first ever federal murder charge arising out of a civil rights-era murder. Jerry is very relentless, but also a very affecting, low-key personality, and a tremendously good guy. It's a very good combination for a journalist.

-Brad Pigott, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi

Jerry Mitchell doesn't look the part of a crusader. Soft-spoken, red-headed, slightly built, and self-effacing, Mitchell is one of the last people you'd pick out of a crowd to be a bona fide rabble-rouser.

Nonetheless, Mitchell-a forty-one-year-old investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi-has been widely hailed as a hero and cursed as a Southern "white traitor" for his ongoing efforts to dig up the unsavory truth about long-ago civil rights crimes, and see the people responsible for those crimes brought to justice.

Mitchell's exploits were documented in part in the movie Ghosts of Mississippi, a dramatic retelling of the real-life effort of Mitchell and others to solve the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, an NAACP field secretary who was shot in the back by segregationist/murderer Byron de la Beckwith. De la Beckwith was convicted in 1994, thirty years after two previous hung juries had failed to hold him responsible for the killing.

Mitchell then prompted a new prosecution of former Mississippi Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers, who was convicted in 1998 for the 1966 murder of voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer, Sr.

More recently, Mitchell has been featured by ABC's 20/20, Brill's Content, Nightline, and other media for his continuing efforts to ferret out the truth about atrocities taking place during the 1950s and 1960s that rocked the nation and stained the South.

Mitchell's own heritage as a Southerner has helped him in his decade-long drive to document old crimes. "Being a Southerner is what enabled me to do these stories," he says. "If I'd not had a Southern accent, these Klan guys wouldn't have talked to me. Being willing to go out for barbecue and catfish helped, too." Mitchell admits to a small dose of white man's guilt, too. "I do have a certain amount of guilt for the way I've treated blacks in my life," Mitchell says.

But the bigger motivation for his work is simply to get to the truth. "It's always stuck in my craw for the bad guys to get away with it," he says. "It's just my sense of belief that the South should do the right thing. Murder is murder-the passage of time doesn't change that fact."

However, the passage of time has indeed made it difficult for some of the atrocities of the civil rights era to be avenged. Witnesses die or forget, and evidence disappears. Also, the United States Constitution requires that criminal defendants be granted speedy trials, and that they be given the right to face their accusers-concepts that can be jeopardized by thirty- or forty-year delays between a crime and a trial.

In Mississippi, lawyers for Byron de la Beckwith attempted to have his conviction overturned on speedy trial grounds, but the Mississippi Supreme Court-in a much-watched opinion-held that de la Beckwith's rights were not violated, in part because state officials secretly assisted his defense attorneys screen jurors.

Another problem related to reviving old civil rights crimes is public resistance to reliving the past. Many Southerners-including those who never raised a hand to harm anyone else-would rather move forward in a diverse New South than backtrack to the bad old days of Jim Crow, blatant racism, and murder. A whole generation of Southerners has been born since the peak of the civil rights movement, and many of those younger people-especially whites-are quick to note that they had nothing to do with the crimes and misdeeds of the previous generations.

Against that backdrop, it has been Mitchell's ability to reach across the decades to locate witnesses and other evidence-despite resistance-that has been the hallmark of his work.

But first, he had to educate himself about the past. The Medgar Evers murder already was twenty-six years old when Mitchell, early in 1989, sat through a press screening of Mississippi Burning-a highly fictionalized retelling of the infamous 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. At the time the movie was released, Mitchell was a court reporter for The Clarion-Ledger, the largest newspaper in Mississippi. Mitchell had no particular background in civil rights, and it bothered him that he was unaware of the real events that inspired the movie.

Shortly thereafter, Mitchell got a tip that information contained in the sealed files of the defunct Mississippi Sovereignty Commission-a state agency set up to promote and maintain racial segregation-showed that Mississippi officials had infiltrated and spied on the Council of Federated Organizations, a coalition of leading civil rights groups that targeted Mississippi in the early 1960s to promote voting rights and racial desegregation. According to Mitchell's sources, the Sovereignty Commission had obtained names of Freedom Summer participants-possibly including those murdered in Philadelphia. "From that point forward, I became obsessed with getting my hands on the Sovereignty Commission records," Mitchell says.

Though the records were under seal by court order, Mitchell was able to get access to some of them. In a series of stories beginning late in 1989, Mitchell revealed that Mississippi officials had spied on Michael Schwerner-one of the Philadelphia victims-several months prior to the murders, and had exchanged information about Schwerner with local police who later were suspected of having been involved in the killings of the three civil rights workers.

After those stories, Mitchell's phone started ringing and hasn't stopped for ten years. Mitchell, a native of Texarkana, Texas, and a resident of Mississippi since 1986, seems unfazed by all the attention his work has received. Though he clearly enjoys his work, he grows somber when he discusses the real pain and hardship that the civil rights era imposed on so many victims of racism.

He takes a visitor to the house where Medgar Evers was assassinated. His voice lowers almost to a whisper as he points out the location where Byron de la Beckwith hid with a high- powered rifle, waiting for Evers to arrive home from a day of organizing would-be voters.

Mitchell stands in the exact spot where Evers stepped from his station wagon that night in 1963. He turns his back to the sniper's location-the way Evers unwittingly did. He points to the place where the mortally wounded Evers fell after the shot, and slowly walks up the edge of the carport where the wounded Evers crawled in an attempt to reach his family. Mitchell points to the plate-glass window that was shattered by the bullet, which passed through Evers' body, entered the house, and landed on a kitchen counter.

"I'm not a hero," Mitchell says. "Medgar was a hero. Vernon Dahmer was a hero; he fought his whole life to get the right to vote for all Americans, but died without ever voting himself."

R. Hayes Johnson, Jr., is a partner in Johnson Law Firm, PLLC, in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and vice chair of the Human Rights editorial board. He is a former newspaper reporter and editor and was a co-worker of the subject of this article, Jerry Mitchell, at The Clarion-Ledger in the mid-1980s.

Other Jerry Mitchell Investigations

  • Mitchell obtained and revealed the contents of a sealed interview with former Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers-the man convicted for ordering Vernon Dahmer, Sr.'s, murder. That interview prompted officials to reopen the Philadelphia murder investigations. Mitchell and others believe that indictments are imminent for the 1964 murders.

  • Mitchell destroyed the thirty-seven-year-old alibi used by an Alabama man to deny involvement in the bombing of an African American church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls. Bobby Cherry had always claimed he was home the night of the bombing, watching wrestling on TV. Mitchell went back to TV logs from that night and proved that there was no wrestling being broadcast in Birmingham. Cherry was arrested in May 2000.

  • Mitchell prompted federal officials to reopen a 1964 double murder investigation after he reported that the murders-carried out by the Ku Klux Klan-may have occurred on federal property.

  • Mitchell reported that the sheriff who investigated a 1966 Klan murder was a Klansman himself, and that the murder suspect had confessed to state prosecutors but the confession had not been used at trial. The suspect was arrested on a federal murder charge.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2000, Vol. 27, No. 4, p.18-20.