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The humble faith of Jerry Mitchell, an American hero

Glimpses of the award-winning investigative reporter’s Christian devotion can be seen in his riveting memoir, ‘Race Against Time.’

Jerry Mitchell is an American hero — a humble one at that.

The Mississippi newspaperman’s courageous journalism helped send four Ku Klux Klan members to prison in civil-rights-era murder cases. 

As recounted in Mitchell’s new memoir, “Race Against Time,” the correspondent’s relentless reporting — through records hiding in plain sight, through interviews with brazen killers, through prodding of reluctant prosecutors — brought justice in a series of high-profile cold cases.

However, this is not a “brag book,” as noted by Cheryl Mann Bacon, the retired journalism chair at Abilene Christian University in Texas.

“If anything, I’d like to know more of his work, see more examples of those stories,” Bacon said, referring to Mitchell’s personal experience. “But he persistently focuses on the victims, their families and those who … were finally brought to justice.”

‘It’s really not about me’

I first wrote about Mitchell’s book when it hit bookstores last month. But I hadn’t finished reading it then.

I had planned to do so over my two-week Christmas break. But the Dec. 29 shooting at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas, meant any reading would be postponed.

Enter the coronavirus pandemic and this new reality called social isolation: I finally made time to listen to the rest of “Race Against Time” (yes, I enjoyed hearing it on Audible in Mitchell’s own voice).

When I talked to Mitchell earlier this year, he explained that the book covers 16 years of his career with Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger newspaper, from 1989 through 2005. 

But he stressed: “It’s really not about me, even though I told it from a first-person perspective. It’s a memoir, but it’s really about these families. To me, the larger story is what’s important.”

And also important, he said, is that “God loves justice.” 

That’s why Mitchell dedicated the book to “The One who loves justice.”

Faith between the lines

Knowing that Mitchell is a person of strong Christian faith — he’s a longtime member of the Skyway Hills Church of Christ in Pearl, Miss. — I was curious about the degree to which religion would figure in “Race Against Time.”

Here’s my analysis: Mitchell is as humble about his faith as he is about his overall importance to the long-delayed criminal convictions that occurred. In other words, he’s not trying to be the star of the show. Justice is his mission.

To be sure, Mitchell — who left the Clarion-Ledger in 2018 to found the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting — offers vivid descriptions of the anguished prayers of victims and the haunting theology of white supremacists.

But readers who pay close attention will catch extremely compelling glimpses of the writer’s own devotion.

Just three examples:

1. In Chapter 14, Mitchell describes a telephone conversation in which he arranged an in-person interview with Byron De La Beckwith, who assassinated NAACP leader Medgar Evans outside his Jackson, Miss., home on June 12, 1963.

Beckwith asked where Mitchell attended college, and the reporter told him Harding University.

Mitchell writes:

He knew about the Christian college, located north of Arkansas’ capital of Little Rock. “Are you a Christian?” he asked.

“I am.” Although we had yet to discuss the matter, I suspected his version of Christianity differed greatly from mine.

2. In Chapter 65, Mitchell reflects on the “Mississippi Burning” case (in which reputed Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old sawmill operator and part-time preacher, was sentenced to 60 years in prison in 2005).

The journalist writes:

The photographs of James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner on the old FBI reward poster haunted me. I had put a digital photo of that poster on my computer desktop as a reminder to never forget them.

For years I had prayed for justice, but now — after so many setbacks — I had begun to wonder if it would ever come. The other day, I had stumbled across the verse, “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”

The Killen verdict was returned on June 21, 2005, the 41st anniversary of the slayings. Only a God who loves justice could have arranged that timing, Mitchell told me in an interview then.

3. And in the acknowledgments at the end of the book — after thanking everyone from victims’ families to prosecutors to his own family — Mitchell returns to where he started:

Thanks, most of all, to the One, who has strengthened and guided me. It is a matter of faith with me, but I believe his hand has helped bring about these convictions.

Bottom line: The award-winning investigative reporter’s faith in a God of justice both motivated him and inspired him to keep digging, even if he lets his actions, not his words, preach most of his sermons.

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: civil rights civil rights era civil rights movement Inside Story Jerry Mitchell journalists Ku Klux Klan Mississippi Mississippi Burning National Race Against Time Reviews Top Stories white supremacists

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