Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2005/ 4 Shevat 5765
When a man seeks justice for all
As the world weighs in against media hubris, often well-deserved, it's bracing to note some of the good that gets done on the fringes in the name of principle rather than in the klieg-seeking interest of self-acclaim.
Meet Jerry Mitchell, 45, investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., the man whose 16-year personal mission is largely credited for the upcoming trial of the man charged with murdering three civil rights workers 40 years ago.
Thanks to Mitchell's labors and to others he insists deserve much credit state authorities have charged Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, a sawmill operator and preacher, with the 1964 murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
Killen, 79, is the first person ever charged with the murders, though he and others were tried in 1967 on federal conspiracy charges in the killings. Killen walked.
The story of the three victims, who were part of Freedom Summer's drive to register black voters, is familiar by now. Mitchell's story may be less so.
It is fair to say that without Mitchell's dogged and often courageous reporting, not to mention an apparently beguiling charm that convinces people they should share secret records with him, many murders from the civil rights era would have remained unvindicated, locked forever in the vaults of regional amnesia.
Mitchell's sense of himself in these events comes footnoted with an "aw shucks" disclaimer. An unabashed Christian, he declines to accept credit for some of the miracles that have resulted in justice the precise ratcheting of seemingly unrelated parts, the stunning timing of random events, the fortuitous encounters and serendipitous discoveries.
"It's been a matter of faith for me throughout this whole thing," he says in a soft drawl. "G-d's hand is in it. It doesn't make sense otherwise."
Mitchell's crusade, if we may now use that word, was the result of an epiphany in 1989 when he saw the movie "Mississippi Burning" with Bill Minor, another civil rights reporter and mentor now in his 80s, and two FBI agents. The four sat around after the movie and dissected it for accuracy.
Those few hours constituted a transformative event in Mitchell's life.
"I frankly was just stupid," he says. "My attitude was, 'What? This really happened? I can't believe this really happened.' It was true 20/20 hindsight, but it was so abundantly clear what happened. People got away with murder."
That recognition stuck in Mitchell's craw, and he started digging into the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the state organization that worked covertly to aid and abet America's native jihadists, the Ku Klux Klan.
His first break came when someone decided Mitchell ought to see some secret records showing that as the state was prosecuting Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the Sovereignty Commission was secretly assisting Beckwith's defense, helping to acquit him.
As a result of that story, Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers, asked authorities to reopen her husband's case. Re-prosecuting Beckwith was extremely unlikely given that only nine pages were left in the court file, but miraculously, an old box turned up in a police department closet containing crime scene photos and a fingerprint of Beckwith, lifted from the murder weapon.
Then Myrlie Evers found her copy of the old court transcript. Two months later, the prosecutor found the murder weapon in the closet of his father-in-law, a judge, who apparently grabbed the gun when they were throwing away evidence.
Fourteen months after Mitchell wrote his first stories, Beckwith was indicted for murder. He was convicted and sentenced to life on Feb. 5, 1994.
As he was led away to jail, Beckwith kept mumbling two words: "Jerry Mitchell."
One story led to another so that today Mitchell can cite a statistic for which he has a right, if not the inclination, to boast: Since 1989, authorities in Mississippi and five other states have reexamined 23 killings from the civil rights era and made 27 arrests, leading to 21 convictions, two acquittals and one mistrial.
In the Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney case, Mitchell again got a peek at some secret records an interview Sam Bowers, '60s-era imperial wizard for the KKK, gave to Mississippi's Department of Archives and History that was supposed to remain sealed until after his death.
In the interview, Bowers says he obstructed justice in the case and was happy to be convicted himself as long as the main instigator of the affair walked out of court a free man. Mitchell subsequently found several new potential witnesses and interviewed jurors from Killen's earlier trial, who said they deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction. One woman juror said she "could never convict a preacher."
Killen's trial date has been set for March 28. No one will be surprised if he's led away to jail muttering two words. Jerry Mitchell.
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