Reporter Lauded For Exposing Civil Rights Era Injustices

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced its latest round of MacArthur Fellows and recipiCients of the group's highly-coveted so-called "genius grant." Among the recently named fellows is investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, a Mississippi journalist renowned for his investigative reporting on crimes committed against civil rights activists. Mitchell talks about receiving the honor and his work for The Clarion-Ledger, the Jackson, Miss., newspaper where he has worked since 1986.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to a very different story about America's racial history. We turn to a man who seeks justice for the dead. No, he's not a cold case police detective, but Jerry Mitchell is the journalistic equivalent. He is an investigative reporter dedicated to identifying individuals who committed crimes decades ago but went unpunished, specifically crimes against civil rights activists. He has been reporting at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi since 1986. Last week, the MacArthur Foundation made him one of this year's group of 24 fellows.

Each winner of the so-called genius grants receive half-a-million dollars over five years, no strings attached. And Jerry Mitchell is with us on the line from Jackson, Mississippi now, where hopefully he'll buy me lunch with his new windfall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JERRY MITCHELL (Reporter, Clarion-Ledger): Absolutely.

MARTIN: Congratulations.

Mr. MITCHELL: On me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm sure you're going to be hearing that a lot.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, I expect it. I've already joked with people that from now on when I go to lunch, no matter how many people, people are going to turn to me and go Jerry will pick it up.

MARTIN: Exactly. Well, Jerry, the MacArthur Foundation said of your work: In an era when long-term investigative reporting is more the exception than the rule, Mitchells' life and work serve as an example of how a journalist willing to take risks in unsettled waters can make a different in the pursuit of justice.

What difference do you think it makes to have these crimes - what's the word I'm looking for - fully understood, have individuals held accountable for what they did, even so long ago?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I mean, we're a society, and we believe in justice, and what happened in these cases, unfortunately, was these were kind of injustices at their height. It wasn't just the fact that these guys got away with murder. It was the fact that everybody knew they were getting away with murder, and that's what I think made it so terrible.

And now we can look back clearly and see what happened, how these guys did get away with murder. And so there's a reason there's no statute of limitations on murder, and this is one of them, that they go back and redress cases like this where justice can be found.

Most of the cases, unfortunately, they won't be prosecuted and won't wind up in court. But the cases where it can be done, obviously, it needs to be done, and those that can be done. And we need to try to preserve that history and - as a society, I think.

MARTIN: For those who aren't aware, you made a name for yourself with the investigation into the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Your reporting paved the way for a new trial and, eventually, the conviction of Byron De La Beckwith. And I wanted to ask, you know, a lot of reporters, you know parachute into places. You know, they do their reporting, and then they leave. You don't leave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: I know. The people keep asking me to, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Inviting you to.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, I had one guy write a letter to the editor one time. It said that I should be tarred, feathered and run out of the state of Mississippi. And, of course, my response to that is, well, you know, it's always nice to know someone will help you pack, you know.

MARTIN: Well, why do they think that? Why do the people who think that -why? They just - what is their view of this? Is it, what, that these people were right to do what they did, or what?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, you know, their view is, you know, I just need to leave it alone, you know, and, you know, that I'm just, you know, making things worse. But, of course, when people are walking around, you have people that are basically murderers walking around, I don't think that says good things about society.

MARTIN: How did you get engaged with these - this story? I mean, there are, you know, lots of reporters in Mississippi who know the same stuff you do, but they're never - not taken it on.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, I know.

MARTIN: Why do you think you're so engaged in…

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I think it was several factors that happened at once. In January of 1989, I went to see the movie "Mississippi Burning," which, of course, is a fictional film. And there have been, you know, quite a number of criticisms of it, and rightly so. But it was kind of, I would say, the beginning of my education about the civil rights movement. I really didn't know that much about it.

I'm a white, Southern WASP, basically, you know. And I was, like, five years old when these kids were killed, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed, and so I really didn't know anything about it. And so I saw it with a couple of FBI agents who investigate the case. And so they began to kind of dissect the movie and say oh, well, here's what really happened and explained all this kind of thing. But I was just very outraged that these guys, klan, you know, klansmen, had never been prosecuted for murder. I couldn't believe that. It was, like, well why not?

MARTIN: There are a lot of people who are concerned about - that your breed, just of people who take the time to dig into these stories, that you are a dying breed. You know, your critics, I'm sure, will be pleased.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But do you worry that legacy that you've built, that the body of work you've built, whether there'll be anybody to carry it on?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, I think - I don't think - you know, I'm far from one person doing - even just doing these cases. In fact, there's kind of a group of us now. We've kind of joined forces to begin to look at all these cases, and we want to try to document every single case from the civil rights era that went unpunished, these killings that went unpunished.

MARTIN: What difference do you think this award - you've not gone without recognition over the course of your career, but what does this particular award mean to you?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, well, it means a lot monetarily.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: It does, it means a lot, I mean, from the standpoint of giving me the freedom to be able to do this. You know, newspapers, obviously, including mine, have really been hit hard in terms of, you know, layoffs and other kind of financial things, and it just makes it more and more difficult. With fewer and fewer people in the newsroom, it makes it more and more difficult to have the time to kind of pursue these cases, and this obviously gives me that time.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations again.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, thank you very much.

MARTIN: I was kidding about lunch. I'll buy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: We'll go Dutch.

MARTIN: All right. Jerry Mitchell with the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from Jackson. Thank you so much.

Mr. MITCHELL: Appreciate it.

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