Reporter cracks open scores of civil rights-era cases
His efforts have helped to heal his community, and himself.
The conspiracy was so wide and out in the open that Jerry Mitchell spent the first quarter-century of his life completely oblivious to it.Skip to next paragraph
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The systematic coverups for the white men who terrorized and killed blacks and white civil rights workers in the 1960s had, in that era, proved an impenetrable wall for law enforcement, as jury after jury sat silent and failed to convict.
But after Mr. Mitchell, then a young-gun reporter at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, unearthed secret documents in 1989 that confirmed that the state of Mississippi spied on its own people – some who ended up killed – the unassuming, but subtly irascible reporter says he "started going down rabbit holes" contained in reams of leaked state and Federal Bureau of Investigation documents.
The result is a 20-year campaign of cold-case reckoning that has directly or indirectly led to 23 convictions for civil rights-era crimes and, in part, the opening of as many as 100 more cases by the FBI – a dossier of sleuthing that has forced a whole region to come to terms with its most painful legacy. At the same time, Mitchell's journey has become increasingly personal, one man coming to terms with his own ignorance and ancestral complicity, as he hunts down aging white men living in kudzu-draped redoubts.
"These cases were the height of injustice," says Mitchell during an interview in his double-wide cubicle in the Clarion-Ledger's newsroom. "They weren't just getting away with murder, but everyone knew it."
Born in Texarkana, Texas, Mitchell was 5 years old when Klansmen in Philadelphia, Miss., kidnapped and killed three civil rights workers in 1964. A few years ago, Mitchell found himself eating whole fried catfish with the planner of that event, Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, an interview that became part of a series of stories – all of the same theme – that Mitchell has been steadily writing since he watched "Mississippi Burning," a movie about the murders, at its Jackson première in 1988. Mr. Killen was convicted of the crime in 2005 and will spend the rest of his life in prison. "He thought he was invincible," says Mitchell.
In the process, Mitchell, admired nationwide for his beat reporting skills, has received grudging respect – as well as hate mail – for his stories, workmanlike prose pegged to startling facts and quotes. He goes right to potential sources, often the accused men themselves, getting interviews that FBI agents failed to get, and piecing together alibis and testimony that later help lead to convictions. Being a Southerner himself has proved a boon, the reporter admits. Killen and his kin chased Northern reporters off his property after Killen's 2005 arrest.
"He's basically one step ahead of prosecutors and investigators," says retired FBI agent Jim Ingram, who worked civil rights cases in Mississippi in the 1960s. "He has a knack for ingratiating himself and getting people to trust him. Plus, he won't take no for an answer."
When Mitchell interviewed Bobby Cherry, who was finally implicated in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church that killed four African-American girls, Mr. Cherry gave an alibi that he was watching wrestling the night of the bombing. The FBI had never followed up on that detail. Mitchell found out there was no wrestling match on TV that night, a nugget of information that became the linchpin of Cherry's conviction.