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Jerry Mitchell Interview: A Journalist's Persistent Pursuit to Bring Civil Rights-Era Killers to Justice

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Image attributed to Jerry Mitchell

Jerry Mitchell

Jerry Mitchell has been a reporter in Mississippi since 1986. A winner of more than 30 national awards, he was also named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006. Mitchell is the founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. The nonprofit is continuing his work of exposing injustices and raising up a new generation of investigative reporters.

Mitchell’s book, Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, is released February 4, 2020. In the book, he takes readers on the twisting, pulse-racing road that led to the reopening of four of the most infamous killings from the days of the Civil Rights movement, decades after the fact. Mitchell’s work played a central role in bringing killers to justice for the assassination of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and the “Mississippi Burning” case.

“He walked me to the car anyway, and he said, ‘If you write positive things about white Caucasian Christians, God will bless you. If you write negative things about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. God does not punish you directly. Several individuals will do it for him.’ His wife had made me a sandwich. I think you can guess what I did with it (laughs).”

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jerry, Race Against Time is your first book?

Jerry Mitchell: It is. I have sort of written a book before. It was called Gone, which was like one of those they put up on Kindle for 99 cents (laughs). It was about a serial killer, and that may be my next book. But it was a newspaper article, a narrative, that I wrote. I think it was about 9,000 words. I’ve done another one called The Preacher and the Klansman for the Clarion-Ledger in 1998. But, yes, this is my first real book.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: How was the experience?

Jerry Mitchell: Oh, yeah. It was a challenge. I’m an old newspaper hack, so writing a book is not my normal thing. So it’s been a long process. To be honest, when I was younger, I didn’t have the ability to do this book. I was able to go to grad school, fortunately, to go to Ohio State and get my masters. That helped me a lot in terms of being able to write a narrative and things like that. Then, of course, I’d never written a book. My editor did a brilliant job and helped me transform my prose into a book form.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you begin investigating unsolved murders of the Civil Rights era?

Jerry Mitchell: I went to see the movie Mississippi Burning, which is a fictional film released in 1988, about the killings of three young civil rights workers. “Mississippi Burning” was also the name of the FBI case.  But I happened to be in the theater with two FBI agents who investigated the case and a journalist who wrote about the case. It was a press premiere, and I was covering it. When it ended, these three old men (I viewed them then as old), gathered around and started talking about what really happened. I was just stunned when they told me that there were 20-something guys involved in the killings, and nobody had been prosecuted for murder. That just shocked me! I was like, “Wait a minute! Nobody ever got prosecuted for murder? What? What happened?”

So that was the beginning of my education, I guess, about the Civil Rights movement. I was woefully ignorant about the movement. I knew nothing other than the very basics. I was pretty young. About the only thing that really stuck out in my mind was when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. I was nine when that happened. But all the things that happened were horrifying. I came to learn about those things on this journey. Also, I don’t know if you’re like me or not, but if someone tells me I can’t have something, I want it a million times more.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’m just like you (laughs).

Jerry Mitchell: (laughs) So there was something in Mississippi called the Sovereignty Commission, which was a state, segregationist spy agency. Believe it or not, Alabama had its own Sovereignty Commission as well and also collected files. The commission in Mississippi collected files on 10,000 people or some kind of crazy number of people including Elvis, by the way, which is worth a chuckle. Anyway, all those files were sealed. A Mississippi legislature voted to seal all those spy files for 50 years. So when I found that out, the first thing I thought was, “There’s got to be something in those files. Why would they seal them for 50 years? Are they waiting for everybody to die?” There was a lawsuit where the ACLU was trying to open the files, and they’d been going back and forth for years. Basically, I was able to develop sources and get my hands on those files. That eventually led to me getting about 2,400 pages, what I like to call the Sovereignty Commission’s greatest hits (laughs). It was like a selected 2,400 pages of the worst things they did. So I wrote stories.

At the same time, the state of Mississippi was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The Sovereignty Commission was working with the defense to try and get Beckwith acquitted, but no one knew that. My story ran October 1, 1989. By the end of that month, the District Attorney had reopened the case. I always compare it to a snowball on top of a very high mountain. By the time it got to the bottom of the mountain, it was an avalanche. So the Medgar Evers case got reopened and reprosecuted. I did interview Byron De La Beckwith before he got arrested.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: A white supremacist and Klansman.

Jerry Mitchell: He was absolutely the worst racist person I’ve spent any serious time with. I spent about six hours talking to him. He was like, “N” word this and “N” word that. He pretty much was an equal opportunity racist, you know what I mean? He hated all other races equally. He was very anti-Semitic.

So we spent about six hours talking, and then it was dark, and I was ready to go. He insisted on walking me out to the car, and I’m like, “Really. That’s okay.” He walked me to the car anyway, and he said, “If you write positive things about white Caucasian Christians, God will bless you. If you write negative things about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. God does not punish you directly. Several individuals will do it for him.” His wife had made me a sandwich. I think you can guess what I did with it (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. That certainly sounds like a threat. The Klan made strong connections between faith and racial/ethnic purity and God and country.

Jerry Mitchell: Oh, I know. Beckwith and I talked quite a bit about that. He was part of what they called “Christian identity,” which is a kind of racist Christian thing. It was awful. I consider myself a Christian, but I was really horrified when he was describing what he claimed were scriptures that backed his beliefs of racism.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Just to clarify a point, Jerry. The Sovereignty Commission was a state agency that was working to free Beckwith?

Jerry Mitchell: It was headed by the governor and included all the top state leaders like the lieutenant governor and Speaker of the House. Everybody who was in power was on the Sovereignty Commission. It was really kind of fascinating.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sadly, Medgar Evers lived with the constant threat of death.

Jerry Mitchell: He did. He was field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP. He was the first one to ever serve in that position, and so he was fulltime NAACP and the only fulltime person. He put 50 or 60 thousand miles a year on his Oldsmobile. He got one of those souped-up Oldsmobiles so he could outrun everybody, and I don’t blame him.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What sort of person is Myrlie Evers?

Jerry Mitchell: She was and is an incredible woman. She was Medgar’s secretary, and so they worked in the same office. Medgar insisted that, in the office, she call him Mr. Evers. And he called her Mrs. Evers. So they went by the formal titles when they were in the office, which might not make any sense, but he wanted to be professional. Among the many humiliations for African Americans in Mississippi and the South and really nationally is they wouldn’t allow courtesy titles. The Mississippi white newspapers wouldn’t allow courtesy titles. They wouldn’t use “Mister.” If they had a preacher, they wouldn’t use “Reverend.”

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Set the stage for us. What was going on in 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham before the bombing on September 15?

Jerry Mitchell: Absolutely. Fred Shuttlesworth doesn’t get his just desserts sometimes. I mean, what a brave guy. He was beaten repeatedly. He had his house bombed on Christmas Day in 1956, and it was really fortunate no one was hurt. But he was beaten and had these things done to him over and over again, and he never gave up. He invited Dr. King in basically to be part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King came in with Ralph Abernathy, and they basically organized. They had these protests that were happening. The idea was that they were going to challenge Jim Crow and white supremacy by going out. They ran out of people, so then the kids got involved. I think there were about 1,000 arrests that were made.

We’ve all seen the footage where the police responded with Bull Connor who sent the dogs out. We’ve seen the pictures and video of the dogs and the fire hoses. They literally used fire hoses on the protestors. These were kids that they pinned up against the walls. This is what was going on in Birmingham at that time. King got arrested. Abernathy and Shuttlesworth were arrested. This is when King wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, which obviously played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement. It was written to white pastors because they were criticizing King, and he was kind of responding. At one point, he was talking about the white moderates being silent and not standing up for justice.

King got out of jail, and the others got out continuing to protest. Finally, the city had enough and had a compromise signed. The downtown restaurant began to integrate. The other thing I should mention actually backs up in time. After WW II, the KKK became active in Alabama, and so there was a whole series of bombings of African Americans in their homes. I think between then and the 60s, there were upwards of about 50 bombings. So many bombings took place in one black neighborhood in Birmingham that it was called “Dynamite Hill.” Some of the people in the movement began to call Birmingham “Bombingham.”

Anyway, you had the segregation taking place with the restaurant, then the school, and the Klan decided to bomb the 16thStreet Baptist Church, which is where the children and other protestors were going out from. It’s located downtown, and people began to go out from that church. So the Klan decided to attack. They planted a bomb underneath the stairs of that church, and it killed those four girls and blinded a fifth girl as well. Her name was Sarah Collins, younger sister of Addie Mae Collins (who was killed), and she testified at the trial.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You spoke with Reverend John Cross of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, who was the pastor at the time of the 1963 bombing. That must still be emotional for him to recall that horrible day.

Jerry Mitchell: Yeah. One of the members of the church said they thought Russia had bombed Alabama. That was the thinking at the time. It was such a huge explosion that there were literally shockwaves. It felt like an earthquake miles and miles and miles away. I talked to an FBI agent who was going to church 20 miles away, and he felt the shockwaves. He knew something happened. So there was all this chaos.

Rev. Cross actually got to those girls’ bodies, and it was just awful. One of them actually had the mortar from a brick lodged into her head. Just awful. He dug those bodies up. They found Sarah Collins alive in the rubble. She was blinded at the time and was able to get her sight back in one of her eyes. Rev. Cross got a bullhorn, went out to the crowd and started shouting Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” in hopes of calming them.

There were two other African Americans killed that day, and they’re sometimes forgotten: Virgil Ware, 13, and Johnny Robinson, 16. Bobby Cherry blamed the bombing on a black janitor and claimed it was a gas explosion. Typical for the Klan to blame others.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was it like for you to interview Bobby Frank Cherry who would be convicted of murder in 2002 for his role in the 1963 16thStreet Church bombing in Birmingham?

Jerry Mitchell: That was wild. I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. It was kind of bizarre. His wife invited me, which I didn’t expect. Here I had worked on two cases already, and she’s inviting me to come talk to him. So I did. I met him and his wife and took them out for barbecue because, I guess, that’s where you take Klansmen. But, yeah, we ate, and Bobby said, “I didn’t have anything to do with that church bombing. I left that sign shop at a quarter to ten because I had to get home and watch wrestling.” He pulled out a sworn statement that said he was sitting around watching wrestling.

I got back the next day to the Clarion-Ledger, the paper where I worked. I said to our librarian, “Check with the Birmingham News and see what was on TV.” Back when I was a kid, they used to run the entire TV schedule in the newspaper. I think Birmingham had only two channels back then. The next day I got a message that there was no wrestling that night. I dug deeper and found there hadn’t been wrestling on for years. It was pretty obvious to me that it was a concocted alibi Bobby came up with in 1980. That’s when the affidavit was signed. That was when the FBI was poking back into it, and that’s the “alibi” he came up with.

I went back and challenged Bobby about this, and he stuck to his guns! I said, “Hey, I’ve got the TV schedule, and I talked to the TV station. There was no wrestling on.” Bobby said, “They must be wrong. Wrestling was on.” It’s funny in a lot of ways. But it was a horrible thing.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you been harassed or received death threats throughout your investigations into these cases?

Jerry Mitchell: Oh, sure. Oh, yeah. I’ve had a lot of death threats. I had a guy tell me he had pictures of me and knew where I lived. I didn’t believe him, but then he started describing me physically, and it was accurate. I thought, “Oh. I guess he does.” (laughs) So that was disconcerting. My wife at the time insisted I call the FBI, and they did investigate it.

So you get those kinds of threats, but as any good journalist knows, anytime you start digging into things, whether it’s the Klan or others, you may have threats. You may get intimidation. So the question for us is, are we going to continue to do what needs to be done or are we going to back down? I wasn’t going to back down, so I kept going.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You say in the book that hate crimes have reached record levels in the United States.

Jerry Mitchell: Yeah. They started back. That’s the indication from the Southern Poverty Law Center in terms of numbers there. It’s sad we’re seeing such a rise in white nationalism. It’s just all kind of rearing its head again. You hate to see it. It’s like a repeat of what we went through.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is it a cycle, or is some of it caused by political rhetoric?

Jerry Mitchell: We go through cycles historically. I think certainly if there is political rhetoric that they feel gives them a safe haven, then obviously, that may embolden them. I would say that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What is the number of active Klan groups still remaining in the United States?

Jerry Mitchell: There are not a lot of Klan groups left. You still have plenty of white supremacists, but the Klan has pretty much faded away. You have some Klansmen but not like you had in the 60s where, according to the White Knights, they had over 90,000 members at one point in Mississippi. You’ve got neo-Nazis. We’ve seen them in Charlottesville and other places. Unfortunately, I really see the kind of fracturing of America right now along racial and political lines. So what is this going to mean for our future? I guess we’ll see.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What do you want people to take away from your book?

Jerry Mitchell: It’s hopefully a detective story, a true crime story. It’s a procedural, as they would say today. That is on the most basic level. On another level, I think you get introduced to these incredible families, the Medgar Evers family, the Vernon Dahmer family, the families involved in the Birmingham church bombing where those young girls were killed as well as the families of the three civil rights workers who were also horribly killed in Mississippi.

I tried to make the characters more than one dimensional even for people like Beckwith who seems almost like a caricature in real life. While I was with him, he doted on his wife, so I put that in the book. I think it’s easy to draw racists or white supremacists as one dimensional and that they’re purely evil. People are more complex. I’m not making any excuses for them because they are absolutely evil. But what I mean is, they are humans at some level. I hope people will learn like I learned. I learned the history through this process, and I hope that people will learn more about the Civil Rights movement. I hope they learn about the courage of some of the people involved, more about the Klan and how it came to be. It’s not a history book per se, but you can learn history through reading the book.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jerry, how do you answer people who tell you that you should’ve just left all of this in the past?

Jerry Mitchell: Well, Myrlie Evers said to me, “It’s like a wound that’s never healed.” So if it’s a wound that never healed, as she pointed out, you have to go in and clean it out in order to be able to heal it. The first thing we try to do as journalists is get to the truth. We may not be perfect in that, but we start to take stabs at it. We’re trying to share these facts we’ve learned and begin to tell the story as we initially understand it. That’s how we work.

We’ve got to be about the truth because history sometimes is written by the victor. In Mississippi, for example, there was a book that went out to students in public schools that said the Klan was a good thing, that they rescued the South in the 1960s. So you’re a white or a black kid in Mississippi in the 60s, and you get those textbooks that tell you the Klan is a good thing. Well, of course, that’s not true! That was a lie. So that’s why it’s important to tell what really happened.

A number of people who have read my book say, “I never knew all of that.” So it’s clear we’ve failed to really tell all of history. I have a Facebook page and a Twitter page, so what I try to do is share some of this history. Whites and African Americans often will respond, “I never knew this.” So it’s like this hidden history that we’ve really not told or certainly not told extensively in books that children are learning. I hope the book can get children interested in history. Maybe it will make people want to learn more about Fred Shuttlesworth, Medgar Evers and all these others involved in the movement. To that extent, I’m hoping the book will help others get to the truth.

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