We had just come back from a break during the height of Edgar Ray Killen’s murder trial, the Ku Klux Klansman accused of orchestrating the killings of three civil rights workers just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi.
I was one of two reporters covering the so-called “Mississippi Burning” trial for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2005. It was a privilege to be part of the national press covering a proceeding many hoped would finally bring justice to the man accused of causing the brutal deaths of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. For trying to register black people to vote back in the summer of 1964, the trio was hunted down by a mob of Klansmen who shot them to death and buried their bodies in an earthen dam. Their murders, which went unpunished for 40 years, were a seminal moment in the battle for civil rights.
But there was some bit of testimony — exactly what, I can’t remember now — that many of us didn’t understand and tried to figure out during the break. There was just one reporter in the room who could explain it in-depth. In fact, if it hadn’t been for his 20 years of investigating the case, we might not have all been in that room. Jerry Mitchell, then a veteran reporter with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, was sitting off to the side. In an affable, thorough way, he explained what had led to the testimony we’d heard earlier but couldn’t figure out.
That is exactly what Mitchell, 60, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, does in his new book “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era.” The book details his efforts to revive the Mississippi Burning case as well as three other major cases, including the bombing of four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; the firebombing of voting rights advocate Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and the assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. His stories on each case led to convictions and prison sentences for the perpetrators of the murders. Mitchell, now founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, will discuss the book with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial director, Shawn McIntosh, on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. McIntosh was an editor at the Clarion-Ledger.
I spoke with Mitchell about the book, the death threats he endured and the current resurgence of white nationalism and anti-Semitism in the United States. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q:You document how Mississippi had a state agency solely devoted to enforcing segregation and white supremacy. The agency existed from 1956 to 1977, and people in the organization spied on ordinary citizens for decades in order to fight integration. How shocked were you by how pervasive it was?
A: I got my hands on the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission records, and I was horrified. It was like 2,400 pages. Every page it’d seem like there was something jaw-dropping. Surveillance was everywhere. At one point they were trying to record (civil rights activist) Fannie Lou Hamer with one of her relatives, and they were using a microphone disguised as a watch. They wanted to disgrace the people in the movement, and they wanted to discredit the movement. They surveilled people in every way imaginable. The police were involved in this. This was not beyond the law; this was part of the law.
Q:One thing that struck me was how generational the hate (for black people) was.
A: Hate gets passed down. It’s not that children are born with hate; they learn to hate. I had people like (Klan member and FBI informant) Billy Roy Pitts talk about that, saying, ‘You know, this is the way I was taught,’ so this is what you believe. He went out and joined the Klan. Hate did that. He ended up apologizing to Mrs. Dahmer and asking her to forgive him for killing her husband.
Q:Reporters who write about race often get backlash and you certainly did.
A: Anything that’s important to write about, you may get backlash on and especially when you deal with issues of race in this country.
Q:Which brings us to this idea of racists hiding in plain sight. You write about the public relations director for the Sovereignty Commission and how polite he was when you met him in the 1980s. You can almost imagine him opening the door for a black woman entering a building or saying hello on the street. So, can you talk about how (someone like that) can be hold holding a door open for a black person and then nearly beat one to death outside of a church?
A: As long as African Americans fit into that white, paternalistic, society and quote-unquote, “knew their place,” they could be the nicest people imaginable. But when (black) people got outside of that…
Q:Let’s bring it forward. People may read your book and think, ‘Well, this is largely in the past. Yes, we saw people march in Charlottesville, but that kind of racism isn’t as pervasive anymore. Can you talk about that perspective?
A: Unfortunately, I think we’re witnessing a real rise right now in white supremacy and white nationalism. There’s no question about that. That’s what led to Charlottesville. It’s this emboldening again.
Q:But is it an emboldening based on fear — fear of change?
A: I think fear is connected to it. Sometimes we call them hate groups, which is correct, but they are also fear groups. They fear the loss of their ‘way of life.’
Q:Do you think a black journalist could have done what you did and have gotten these cases reopened?
A: I think a black journalist could have done everything I did, absolutely, except for this: I don’t know if these Klan guys would have talked to them. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they were that brazen that they would have opened up. But I just think, you know, I’m a white Southerner through and through, and I just think that helped me open those doors getting these guys to talk.
Q: Can you talk about the impact all of this had on your family? because You were married at the time with children.
A: To be honest, I didn’t tell everything. The book only covers a portion of that because I didn’t want to overwhelm peo ple people with that. But as I look back, I was crazy. My goal in each of these cases was to get these guys to talk. I took Killen to eat catfish. I took Bobby (Frank) Cherry (later convicted of murder in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings) to eat barbecue. I mean whatever you can do to relax people and get them talking.
Q: Are there any other cases you wish you could have gotten to, wish you could have gotten reopened?
A: Oh yeah, I mean there’s so many. You’re talking about 120-something families. Yeah, I wish I could have gotten to them all.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.