Journalist Jerry Mitchell Discusses Decades Investigating Civil Rights Era Killings
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A loose cannon and a white traitor - those are just a couple of things our next guest has been called, according to his own official bio on the Jackson Clarion Ledger website.
Jerry Mitchell is a reporter for the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss. He has spent his career investigating some of the most notorious killings of the civil rights era. Mitchell's work has led to the arrest and conviction of the people responsible for the assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church that killed four girls, and the man who organized the killings of three civil rights workers.
Now, after more than 30 years at the paper, Mitchell is leaving to start a new, independent journalism project. Jerry Mitchell joins us from Jackson. Welcome.
JERRY MITCHELL: Well, thank you for having me.
KELLY: So it was 1989 when you took up investigating the civil rights era and killings from that era that had gone unpunished. And I want to ask about what I gather was the very first case you took on, which was the assassination of Medgar Evers. Remind people who he was.
MITCHELL: Well, Medgar Evers was an NAACP leader. He was the field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP. He fought in Normandy and then came home and fought racism all over again in the form of Jim Crow - put like 50-60,000 miles a year on his Oldsmobile driving across Mississippi, investigating civil rights beatings and killings. And he - on the same night that President Kennedy told the nation that the grandsons of slaves were still not free, he was assassinated, shot in the back outside his own home, June 12, 1963.
KELLY: 1963. Now, the following year, 1964, a former KKK member - this is Byron De La Beckwith - he was tried for this crime. He was actually tried...
KELLY: ...Twice for it - hung jury both times.
MITCHELL: Yes, he was.
KELLY: How did you end up circling back to this in 1989?
MITCHELL: If you're like me, if someone tells me I can't have something, I want it a million times worse. And...
KELLY: (Laughter) I am.
MITCHELL: So there was something called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. It had more than 132,000 pages of spy records that were sealed for 50 years by the Mississippi legislature.
KELLY: Explained just briefly, what is the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission?
MITCHELL: The Sovereignty Commission was - had kind of a spy arm. They would infiltrate civil rights groups, report back.
KELLY: This was a state - a government organization?
MITCHELL: Yes. It was headed by the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state. I mean, every major official in Mississippi was a part of the Sovereignty Commission.
So I was able to develop sources who had access to these secret files, began to leak me these files. What they showed is the same time the state of Mississippi was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the killing of Medgar Evers, this other arm of the state, the Sovereignty Commission, was secretly assisting his defense, trying to get Beckwith acquitted. And nobody knew that. And that story ran October 1, 1989, and led to the reopening of the case and eventually the prosecution.
KELLY: And led to a new trial, and De La Beckwith was convicted.
KELLY: Another case - Sam Bowers...
KELLY: ...The Imperial Wizard for the Klan in Mississippi - and you spent years trying to prove that he was behind the assassination of another NAACP activist...
KELLY: ...Vernon Dahmer. What happened with that?
MITCHELL: Well, Vernon Dahmer was NAACP leader, business man. He basically died defending his family. The Klan firebombed his house, began firing guns in the house. He grabbed his shotgun, ran to the front of the house, began firing at the Klansmen so his family could escape safely out a back window. But unfortunately, the fire seared his lungs, and he died later that day.
And Bowers ordered - ordered that. And so I tracked down the key witness in the case, whose name was Billy Roy Pitts. He was stunned when I found him. I found him just through the Internet, believe it or not. And Mississippi authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, and so he ran. And while he was on the run, he sent me a cassette tape. And on it, he recorded a message. And this is what he said, (imitating Billy Roy Pitts) Jerry, I just thought I'd let you know you've ruined my life, but I promise if I talk to anybody, I'd talk to you. So here's this tape.
And on this tape, he proceeds to tell me all about his involvement killing Vernon Dahmer, all his involvement with all this other Klan violence. And...
KELLY: Wow. The full confession on tape.
MITCHELL: Full confession on tape. And...
KELLY: Mailed to you in the newsroom, or how'd you...
MITCHELL: Mailed to me in the newsroom. Yeah, yeah. That's how I got it, in the newsroom. I did a story, obviously, and he turned himself, shortly after this, into authorities. And this led to Sam Bowers' arrest and his trial as well.
KELLY: And he was ultimately convicted, too.
MITCHELL: Convicted August 21, 1998, and sentenced to life in prison.
KELLY: I love that you still remember the exact date of that. It meant so much to you.
MITCHELL: (Laughter) I'm a journalist. I have to remember dates, right?
KELLY: (Laughter) Why has it been so important to you to pursue these stories, these prosecutions, as they ended up being, so long decades after the fact?
MITCHELL: Well, it was important to me - I just - it just kind of stuck in my craw, these guys getting away with murder. And I think what made these cases unique, in a sense, it was not just these guys got away with murder. It was the fact that everybody knew they got away with murder. So this was kind of injustice at its height.
KELLY: I mean, where do you think Mississippi and, I guess, the South more broadly are in wrestling with the legacy of the civil rights movement and some of the really awful violence that played out alongside it?
MITCHELL: I don't know that the South has completely come to terms with it. I think you're starting to begin to see this. You know, Mississippi now has built a Civil Rights Museum, and that's a sign, I think, a real good step, so the people can begin to learn.
I can't tell you how much people, when I talk to them about things that happened in the civil rights movement, will say I never knew that. Or they didn't teach me that in school, or whatever it is. So I think there's a lot of ignorance or lack of knowledge about the movement.
KELLY: It's something that just wasn't talked about in the Deep South. It was uncomfortable.
MITCHELL: Absolutely. When I first started writing these stories, I mean, I would have people call and just cuss me out all the time, death threats and things like that. But those - those began to wane - for the most part, wane over time. I still got the death threats. But I think there's some change, especially with the new generation coming up. I sense with them that they're - they're kind of tired of the - the things that Mississippi has been labeled with or perceived as. And they really want to - want to change that.
KELLY: I'm thinking about the kind of reporting you have done, so much of which rests on establishing a - a set of common facts. And I wonder, is it harder in this era of fake news and alternative facts in which we live?
MITCHELL: (Laughter) Well, you know, I guess it is. You know, there was always a struggle, even before because, you know, the Klan would kind of put out their version of what they claimed happened. Of course, it wasn't true at all - and to try to conceal their crimes and things like that.
But I think truth is truth. I think that it's a good thing, and I think that's one of the things I think that's great about reporting is we seek the truth, and we seek to shine a light on those things. And I've always been of the opinion whenever you shine a light, that, you know, the cockroaches kind of scatter. So I've always been a fan of that.
KELLY: Jerry Mitchell, thank you.
MITCHELL: Thank you so much.
KELLY: Jerry Mitchell, an investigative journalist these last 30 years at the Jackson Clarion Ledger. He jumps this week to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.