Reporter Jerry Mitchell on Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases

In 1989, journalist Jerry Mitchell began to dedicate a great portion of his reporting to the unsolved crimes of the civil rights movement. His work has inspired the reopening of numerous "cold" cases. He talks about his career with Farai Chideya.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Journalist Jerry Mitchell has all sorts of colorful, poignant, and even funny stories. But unlike a lot of reporters, his reminiscences are time spent grilling members of the Klan.

Mitchell is a white southerner from Texarkana, Texas. He's been able to get some of the worst criminals of the Civil Rights era to speak on the record. And his reporting has led to four convictions, including Edgar Ray Killen for the deaths of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

Mr. JERRY MITCHELL (Writer, The Clarion-Ledger): We're talking and - at some point, he goes, there's some guy in Jackson just keeps stirring things up and stirring things up and I just didn't have the heart to tell them it was me.

CHIDEYA: Jerry Mitchell writes for the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger. I asked him to talk about the extraordinary career he's carved out by exposing unsolved civil rights cases. He's currently working on a series of articles looking back at the murder of Emmett Till.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, at this point, there's going to be a grand jury in Leflore County, which is where Greenwood, Mississippi, is that will be taking up this case in March. And that's where it stands right now.

Look, the lone suspect in the case is Carolyn Bryant. Now she is the one whom Emmett Till allegedly wolf-whistled at at the store a couple of days before. The - Roy Bryant and - who was Carolyn Bryant's then-husband and J.D. Milam and came out and kidnapped him from Mose Wright's house and took him out and beat him and shot him, then tied a gin fan to his neck and threw him in the Tallahatchie River.

CHIDEYA: What's the significance of there being a grand jury now after the perpetuators are dead, after decades have passed? What's the significance of this to you? Does this feel like a victory to you?

Mr. MITCHELL: I don't know about a victory, I mean, I think, you know, a friend of mine who's an investigative reporter has a button that says, I just catch 'em, I don't fry 'em. So it's kinds of my philosophy about journalism. You know, I just think that my job is to just kind of expose the truth and let the truth lead to where it may go.

So I think this is, obviously, the end of kind of a long road for that case. I mean, the two guys at that time, Bryant and Milam, were tried and were acquitted by the all-white jury in 1955.

CHIDEYA: And then confessed.

Mr. MITCHELL: Only to confess - right - months later, to Look Magazine tell the whole story - oh, yeah, we did do it.

CHIDEYA: Well, you're the kind of person who, some folks think of as a crusader and other folks think of a gadfly…

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, yeah.

CHIDEYA: Someone who is exhuming the bones of the past. How would you describe yourself?

Mr. MITCHELL: You know, the best term I know to describe myself is probably a term that most people would consider an insult. It's the term muckraker. I just think of myself in kind of the traditional muckraker of the previous century. I mean, you know, they came along and they wrote about, you know, horrible conditions in factories and meatpacking plants. And as a result of that it led to changes in the way that food was handled, the creation of the FDA, and the end of child labor, the changes to the way that the mentally ill were treated and dealt with.

So I consider myself kind of in that tradition. I don't think of myself as - hopefully I'm not a gadfly - maybe a pest.

CHIDEYA: So I'm going to name some people…

Mr. MITCHELL: Okay.

CHIDEYA: And I want you to tell me how you got involved in pursuing the truth.

Mr. MITCHELL: Okay. Sure.

CHIDEYA: Byron De La Beckwith.

Mr. MITCHELL: I mean he was the one who killed Medgar Evers. I talked to him over the cell phone, probably a dozen times, late 1989, early 1990. I had found out about these - the Sovereignty Commission was a state segregationist spy agency here in Mississippi - thank God, it no longer exists - it was run by the governor. And basically, it turned out that they had secretly assisted Mr. Beckwith's defense back in 1964 and nobody knew that at that time.

So I did a story and the case got reopened. And so that led me talking to Mr. Beckwith. And I went up and visited him in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, which is right outside of Chattanooga. This is April of 1990, now.

We talked for about six hours and it was starting to get dark, and so I was ready to go and he insists on walking me out to the car. And I'm like, really that's fine, you don't have to walk me out. And he walks me out anyway.

We get out to the car and he says 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. If God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for him. And so his wife had made a sandwich. And probably, guess what I did with it.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. I'm about to say. It's the rat poison that gives it that extra flavor.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah. Another time Beckwith saw me across the courtroom, this is after he got arrested, and saw me across the courtroom, he says you see that boy over there? When he dies he should go on to Africa.

CHIDEYA: I mean this is funny stuff. I mean these are some of the most serious crimes…

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, yeah.

CHIDEYA: …in American history, and yet you find the sense of humor in them. Does that allow you to go on?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, yeah. I think some of it is very funny, to be honest.

CHIDEYA: The movie…

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: "Mississippi Burning," which came out in '88…

Mr. MITCHELL: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: …inspired you personally, didn't it?

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah. It was - I always say it's the beginning of my education. I went to see the movie with two FBI agents who investigated that case - Jim Ingram and Roy Moore, and journalists who covered that case, and others. So the thing that just amazed me is these guys, they kill these kids and got away with murder. They were never prosecuted for murder and that just bothered me.

CHIDEYA: Not until you got involved and Edgar Ray Killen was found guilty in 2005. I myself have interviewed Klan's people, white supremacies…

Mr. MITCHELL: Sure.

CHIDEYA: …people involved in racial incidents. And one thing that I always am aware of, is that because I'm black, there are certain things that people probably wouldn't tell me. And I know that…

Mr. MITCHELL: I think that's correct.

CHIDEYA: I know that going in. Do you see your race in the context of the reporting you do as an asset or even a weapon?

Mr. MITCHELL: (Unintelligible), it's definitely an asset. In fact, not just being white - that being white, southern, Christian. I mean, I remember I had to answer probably a dozen question from Beckwith. Where do you go to church? Where did you grow up? You know those kinds of questions.

And you know, I could have declined to answer those questions but I knew because of my conservative, Christian, Southern upbringing that every answer I gave he would like. Of course, he assumed I share the same in his racial views, and of course, I didn't.

CHIDEYA: Bobby Cherry. Tell us about that case, which riveted the country?

Mr. MITCHELL: The church bombing took place in Birmingham in September 1963 and killed four girls in a church. I mean it just horrified the nation. In fact, a number of the people who got involved in the Civil Rights movement, including Mickey Schwerner were basically inspired by that - that they were so horrified and outraged by that killing that they decided to get involved in the Civil Rights movement.

And Bobby Cherry was one of the suspects in that case. I had talked to him, briefly before - this was in, now in the summer of 1999 - I got an e-mail from his wife saying that he want to talk to me. Of course, I'm thinking to myself, if I was a Klan guy wanted in one of these old cases, would I talk to me? Hmmm. Probably not.

But anyway, he wanted to so I took him up on and drove over to Texas - he lived in Maybank, Texas - and took him and his wife out for barbeque because it's where you take Klansmen out for, I'm not really sure. But, anyway, we went out.

We talk for about six hours and he said, I didn't have anything to do with that church bombing. I left that sun shop - the sun shop is like two and a half blocks from where the church blew up - I left that sun shop at a quarter to 10 because I had to get home and watch wrestling.

He pulled out this sworn affidavit from a woman. Yes, I remember that night well, we're all sitting around watching wrestling.

So I got back to the newspaper and talked to our librarian Susan Garcia(ph) and said, Susan, just - check with the Birmingham news and see what was on TV that night.

And the next day I have an electronic message from Susan, all in capital letters: there was no wrestling. In fact, as I found out there hadn't been wrestling on for years on television, you know.

CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm. Well, how has this changed your life? I mean do you feel, first of all, do you feel safe? Do you feel safe doing what you do despite the fact that you are white and you are a Southerner and you can talk to people and take them out to barbeque, even if they may, in the end, regret heavily the price of that free dinner? Do you feel safe when you walk around, when you do your work, when you keep investigating?

Mr. MITCHELL: Sure. I don't live in fear. I mean I think it's one of those bridges I had to cross early as a reporter. Am I going to keep reporting on this or not, you know? Just because I get threats, am I going to stop? You know, I decided no. And it does go back to my faith, you know, on a personal level and I've been able to persist at this and thankfully some of these have been prosecuted and gone behind bars.

CHIDEYA: You mention your faith. Why would God allow this kind of a killing? I think that's a question that the families of the children, the girls blown up in Birmingham would…

Mr. MITCHELL: It's a good question. I mean, but obviously, God will, you know, he doesn't stop all evils from taking place. And that's what happened in these cases. I'm convinced that this was on generated by God but generated by evil - evil people, evil men carrying out evil deeds. And they deserve to be punished. I mean someone who blows up a church and kills four little girls deserves to be punished, no matter what the passage of time.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jerry, thanks so much for sharing your story.

Mr. MITCHELL: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Jerry Mitchell is a writer for Jackson, Mississippi's Clarion-Ledger. His reporting has led to convictions in four previously unsolved civil rights era murder cases.

(Soundbite of music)

That's our show for today. And we welcome our new listeners in Gainesville, Florida, WUFT, added to their digital channel.

Tomorrow, we'll hear from NPR's Ken Rudin about House debate on a resolution against the Iraq war.

To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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