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Southern Man: Klan-Busting Journalist Jerry Mitchell

The FBI arrests another aging White Knight in a Civil Rights-era murder—based, in part, on the work of a Mississippi newspaper reporter.

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 6:46 PM EST
Jerry Mitchell
Jerry Mitchell

On Saturday, May 2, 1964, two white men in a Volkswagen pulled up to an ice cream stand on U.S. 84, just west of Meadville, Mississippi. Hitchhiking there on the highway were two black 19-year-olds, Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. Both lived in the area.

"You boys want a ride?" asked one of the men.

The youths declined, suspecting—correctly—that the whites were in the Ku Klux Klan.

"Dammit, you nigger, get in this car!" shouted one of the Klansmen. "I'm an Internal Revenue Agent and I want to talk to you!"

The Klansmen drove Moore and Dee into the nearby Homochitta National Forest, where they were joined by three or four other members of the White Knights. In one of their more paranoid conspiracy theories, the Klansmen believed that the former college students were part of a rumored Black Muslim plot to smuggle guns into the area to stage an uprising. They tied Moore and Dee to a tree and beat them unconscious with bean sticks. Then they dumped them into the back of a pick up truck, drove them into Louisiana, about 75 miles away, and tossed them into the Mississippi River chained to a Jeep engine. They were still alive.

Their bodies—or what was left of them—were found 10 weeks later, an incidental consequence of the intense search mounted in a far more prominent Mississippi case that summer—the murder of three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. In October 1964 the FBI arrested two papermill workers, Klansmen James Ford Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards, for killing Moore and Dee, and turned them over to state authorities. Three months later a local district attorney inexplicably asked for—and got—a dismissal. Seale and Edwards were set free.

Today, nearly 43 years later, the FBI rearrested Seale, now 71, on federal—not state—kidnapping charges. Edwards, now 73, was not charged but he has been interviewed by the FBI and is expected to testify against Seale, who denies the charges.

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As in so many cases involving civil rights-era murders, the arrests can be traced to a single newspaper reporter, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Since 1989 Mitchell has been a one-man cold case squad, steadily unearthing the evidence necessary to bring one aging Klansman after another to justice. Among his conquests: Imperial Grand Wizard Sam Bowers for ordering the fire-bomb murder of voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer, white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith for shooting NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in the back with a long-range rifle, Klan recruiter Edgar Ray Killen for organizing the kidnap and murder of the three civil rights workers, and Klan foot soldier Bobby Frank Cherry, for his role in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls. At the same time Mitchell's work has inspired others—journalists, citizens groups, federal and state investigators—to reexamine Klan killings throughout the South. The scorecard so far: 28 arrests leading to 22 convictions.

What makes this story so improbable is that on paper and in person Mitchell does not seem like a "muckraker" or "troublemaker," the two terms he uses most frequently to describe himself. He is a white Southern church-going Christian who works for a newspaper that was once so rabidly pro-segregation it editorialized against opponents of lynching. "Mississippi has changed more than any other state," he says. "It's brought more civil rights cases than any other state—of course it had more cases to bring—but still you've got to give it credit."

At 47, Mitchell is lean, with red hair and beard. (In the movie version, he would be played by David Caruso.) His outward demeanor is easy going and friendly. He never argues with the people he interviews—or who call him on the phone to complain—no matter how crazy or misguided they may seem. But those who know him best—his wife Karen and his editor, Debbie Skipper—insist he is extremely competitive. He doesn't disagree. "If I'm told I can't have something," he says, "I want it a million times more."

Needless to say, Mitchell is not exactly popular with former members of the White Knights or some residents of Mississippi. Beckwith once called him "a little wretch." Others described him as a "white traitor," suggested he be "tarred and feathered and run out" of the state, or claimed he has "been inciting craven politicians to drag old, sick and defenseless citizens before 'kangaroo courts.'" He has been threatened numerous times but so far no one has tried anything, and Mitchell has never backed down. "To me it's just a matter of doing the right thing," he says. "You don't let people intimidate you—whether they're Klan guys or politicians or whoever."

His interview style, he says, is "the opposite of Mike Wallace." And that may be one reason he gets along with so many white supremacists. When he meets with them, he is there to listen, to draw the person out and possibly to find his interview subject in a lie. He actively hates the movie Absence of Malice because, among other things, the careless reporter portrayed by Sally Field does something too many journalists do: she waits until the last minute to try to contact a story subject suspected of a crime and seems content to go with "could not be reached for comment." "Anybody who is any kind of decent journalist knows that some of the best material you get are from targets of investigations," Mitchell says. "So this notion that all you have to do is make some obligatory call to the target doesn't know much about journalism in my book."

The result is that Klansmen are willing to talk to Mitchell, even though they know he helped put away some of their associates. In 1999, for example, retired truck driver Bobby Frank Cherry, one of two surviving suspects in the Birmingham church bombing, invited Mitchell to visit him at his home in Mabank, Tex. During a six-hour interview, Cherry, then 71, insisted several times that he had nothing to do with the bombing. His alibi: he was home with a bad back, watching wrestling on TV at the time 19 sticks of dynamite on a timing device were believed to be planted in the church basement.

When Mitchell returned to his office, he asked the Clarion-Ledger's librarian Susan Gray to check the TV schedule in the Birmingham News for the evening before the bombing. A day or so later she left Mitchell a note: "There was NO wrestling." Mitchell didn't let it go at that. He spent days on the phone with various executives of Birmingham's two television stations at the time, understanding their programming, making sure there wasn't the slightest possibility that wrestling had aired that night. (Neither channel had shown wrestling for more than a year.) He also asked Cherry about it several times but the Klansman stuck to his account. When Mitchell wrote his story, he let Cherry air his views—and racial slurs—in print; at least half of his 2,034-word article deals with Cherry's side, although some of it disputes his positions. "Something that has zero credibility, I'm not going to let stand," Mitchell says. "I'm going to get someone to challenge it because I believe in truth too. But I'm going to let them have their say."

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