Reporter cracks open scores of civil rights-era cases

His efforts have helped to heal his community, and himself.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Intrepid: Reporter Jerry Mitchell has helped reopen 100 cold cases from the civil rights era.
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    Justice: Edgar Ray Killen (not shown) pleaded ‘not guilty’ on Jan. 7, 2005, when he was arraigned on murder charges for the killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, civil rights activists whose burned car was found in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964.
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    Justice: Edgar Ray Killen pleaded ‘not guilty’ on Jan. 7, 2005, when he was arraigned on murder charges for the killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, civil rights activists whose burned car was found in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964.
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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.

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.

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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.

Mitchell has 40,000 pages of FBI documents – he won't say how he got them – converted to searchable PDF files on his computer. He pores through them daily like a latter-day Bob Woodward.

Last week came Mitchell's latest blockbuster: FBI documents that seem to bolster a long-held suspicion of a Ku Klux Klan conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King Jr., including a $50,000 "bounty" put on Martin Luther King's head that may have motivated his killer, James Earl Ray. "Nobody wanted King dead more than the White Knights, which referred to the civil rights leader in their literature as 'Martin Lucifer Coon,' " read Mitchell's story in last Friday's edition of the Clarion-Ledger.

"I'm acting more like a detective," Mitchell says. "I tend to be attracted to cases that are still prosecutable."

Law-enforcement officials say Mitchell's work has been indispensable, not only in digging up information, but also in forcing legal action on ice-cold cases. "It's one thing to ask a busy agent to take time to go into the field to investigate a 40-year-old murder. It's another thing to have Jerry serve it up to you on a silver platter," says former US Attorney Brad Pigott, who followed Mitchell's scoops about Klansman Ernest Avants, who was eventually convicted in 2003 for the 1966 murder of a black sharecropper.

Mitchell is considered by some in the South to be a white traitor. But people seldom quibble with his veracity. "The facts speak for themselves, but some people just can't bear the truth because it affects them so much," says Mr. Ingram.

But in many ways, the effect of Mitchell's work has been cathartic, says James Smith, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

"People today realize that Mississippi, if we're not fair to everybody, then we're dead in the water as a community," says Mr. Smith. "Our future and quality of life depend on learning to pull together, so part of that is resolving issues of the past."

Mitchell says he does his reporting partly to resolve his own historical ignorance. He didn't know until much later that a race riot had taken place at his high school in Texarkana while he was in elementary school. In 1990, he found out that he's related by marriage to Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price.

Perhaps most eye-opening was the legacy of his own newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, which like so many Democratic newspapers in the South fanned the flames of Jim Crow. Worse, the Clarion-Ledger helped steer the nefarious Sovereignty Commission that spied on activist blacks and civil rights workers, including Michael Schwerner, one of the three killed in Philadelphia.

Mitchell says it's not advocacy, but rather a sense of justice imbued in him by his mother, that drives his work. On his computer is taped Jeremiah 32:27: "I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?" His screen-saver is the "missing" poster for the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia.

Personally, Mitchell says, the story has become more complex in later years. It's not just a general white man's guilt. He remembers when the Texarkana schools became integrated and an African-American student named Suzie Watson got a heap of verbal abuse from the boys in the class. Mitchell says he didn't join in, but neither did he try to stop it.

A few weeks ago, the grown-up Suzie called Mitchell. He was elated, but also worried. She knew about his work.

"I am so proud of you," she told him. He says her voice warmed him more than any local or national prize, of which he's won many.

A collection of cracked civil-rights cases

Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell's stories include exposes of the era's most infamous names. Among them:

Ku Klux Klan Imperial Grand Wizard Sam Bowers, who ordered the 1966 fire-bomb killing of Vernon Dahmer, a Hattiesburg, Miss., civil rights activist.

White supremacist Byron de la Beckwith, who shot NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in the back with a sniper rifle in 1963.

Klan boss Edgar Ray Killen for his role in the kidnapping and murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, later depicted in the movie "Mississippi Burning."

Reputed Klansman Ernest Avants for the 1966 shooting of Mississippi sharecropper Ben Chester White as part of an assassination plot against Martin Luther King Jr.

Klan member Bobby Frank Cherry, who helped to plan the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls.

Mitchell's work has also inspired others – journalists, citizens groups, federal and state investigators – to reexamine Klan killings throughout the South. The scorecard so far: 28 arrests leading to 22 convictions.

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