Award-winning Mississippi reporter shines light on state’s dark past
JACKSON, Miss. — Civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, whose brutal slayings inspired the 1989 movie “Mississippi Burning,” stare out at investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell from a 1964 FBI missing persons poster.
After more than a decade of digging into the case, Mitchell made the poster his computer screen saver at The Clarion-Ledger in 2001.
“The state had basically given up on the case,” said Mitchell, 46, a member of the Skyway Hills Church of Christ in Pearl. “It was a reminder to me to say, ‘Don’t give up.’ ”
This summer, 16 years after the movie sparked Mitchell’s pursuit of justice in the case, a jury convicted reputed Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the deaths.
The 80-year-old sawmill operator and part-time preacher was sentenced to 60 years in prison in a case that a defense lawyer said should have been called “Jerry Mitchell v. Edgar Ray Killen.”
The guilty verdict came on the 41st anniversary of the June 21, 1964, killings — timing that Mitchell suggests only a God who the Bible says “loves justice” could have arranged.
“God’s timing is not man’s timing. It never is. What is 16 years to God?” said Mitchell, who taped Jeremiah 32:27 to his computer: “I am the Lord the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”
‘DEALING WITH ‘SINS OF THE PAST’
Killen was just the latest Klan leader brought to justice by what Gregory E. Favre, a distinguished fellow in journalism values at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., calls Mitchell’s “dogged investigation of the sins of the past.”
Investigators reopened the Killen case after Mitchell obtained a transcript of a secret interview in which Sam Bowers, a onetime Klan imperial wizard, bragged that he had obstructed justice in the murders and gotten away with it. He also said that he was delighted that a fellow Klan member – Killen – had gotten away with murder.
As Favre noted in a column, Mitchell’s stories led not only to the reopening of the Mississippi Burning case, but also to the 1994 conviction of former Klansman Byron De La Beckwith in the 1963 murder of NAACP official Medgar Evers.
Mitchell’s reporting also led to the guilty verdicts for two other Klansmen: one who ordered the firebombing that killed NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer Sr. in Hattiesburg in 1966 and another for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls.
Newsweek recounted how Mitchell has published “story after meticulously sourced story … uncovering decades-old, secret documents that shine light on the darkest corners of Mississippi’s past.”
In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam described Mitchell as “a modern American hero” and “the conscience of that state for almost 20 years.”
Debbie Skipper, an assistant managing editor at The Clarion-Ledger, said Mitchell is a tenacious reporter with well-honed investigative skills. But beyond that, his devout Christian faith pushes him to seek the truth, she said.
Mitchell’s work has helped bring racial reconciliation and healing to Mississippi and the South, but he said God deserves the credit.
“You can’t help but believe that God has had a hand in all of this,” Mitchell said.
MITCHELL’S CHURCH ROOTS RUN DEEP
Mitchell grew up in Texarkana, Texas, in a family with deep church of Christ roots.
His father, Jerry Sr., is a former preacher and Navy pilot who serves as an elder at the Walnut church in his hometown. The younger Mitchell’s grandfather and great-grandfather also were elders.
Mitchell attended Harding University, Searcy, Ark., earning a journalism degree in 1982. While working at a small newspaper in Arkansas, the Watergate account in the book All The President’s Men helped feed his passion for investigative reporting.
He and his wife, Karen, have a daugher, Katherine, 20, a Harding student, and a son, Sam, 15.
At Skyway Hills, Mitchell regularly leads prayers and presides over the Lord’s Supper. The congregation’s minister, Yale Canfield, said he considers Mitchell one of his closest “spiritual friends.”
“God hooks us up with certain people and Jerry teaches me because he’s daily in the word,” Canfield said in a recent sermon.
Mitchell said later that Canfield was trying to embarrass him. But thumb through Mitchell’s Bible and one finds notes written in the margins of every single page.
As this conservative Christian reporter has taken former Klan members out for catfish or barbecue, to find out what happened way back when, a few have presumed that he shared their racist beliefs, “which is kind of sad in a way,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell has listened to racist rants and quoted back Scriptures to Klan members claiming that Adam and Eve were white, or that non-white races were created on the sixth day with animals.
“Oh, where’s that in the Bible?” Mitchell likes to ask, demanding to know a chapter and verse.
Mitchell and Canfield meet weekly for lunch or breakfast, and Mitchell proofreads Canfield’s weekly bulletin articles.
“It’s a blessing for me to be associated with this guy,” Canfield told The Christian Chronicle over breakfast at a Cracker Barrel. “You just have to watch your back when you’re with him. Stay away from the windows.”
NO THREAT TO THE SOUL
Canfield was joking, but Mitchell’s work has brought repeated threats.
Mitchell recalls that Beckwith warned him: “If you write negative things about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. And if God does not punish you, several individuals will do it for him.”
He turns to Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who will kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”