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.

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.

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."

Mitchell's story helped reopen the bombing case, one that J. Edgar Hoover had shut down in 1965. On May 22, 2002, Cherry was convicted in federal court in Birmingham of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He died of cancer November 18, 2004. "This is the kind of stuff you live for as an investigative reporter," Mitchell says. "I had no idea when I went to talk to the guy that that's what would come out of it. I just wanted the guy to talk. A lot of times you give people enough rope, they hang themselves."

This "assume-nothing" approach helped Mitchell get the case against Seale reopened. Seven years ago, after discovering that Moore and Dee had been beaten in the Homochitto National Forest, Mitchell wondered why the case fell under state jurisdiction. If at least part of it took place on federally owned land, he asked, wouldn't it be a federal crime? At first the U.S. Attorney agreed and reopened the case. But he quickly re-closed it. The FBI said its files had been destroyed. It didn't take long for Mitchell to find another set of the 687-page case file and get the case reopened once again.

Even so, the case continued to linger. In 2005, Moore's brother, Thomas, a retired Army sergeant major, came to Mississippi, met with authorities and helped set up a reward for information into the case. Mitchell credits Moore with pushing the FBI to make an arrest. "He never forgot, never gave up and never stopped believing that justice could be done," Mitchell says.

***

The most telling object on Mitchell's desk in the second floor newsroom of the Clarion-Ledger is not the row of rolodexes he doesn't use anymore (he stores contact information electronically). Nor is it the quote from Jeremiah pasted to his computer or the framed one from Deuteronomy that his daughter gave him one Father's Day. Rather it is a row of reference books: one dictionary, one thesaurus, two bibles and three movie guides. Like many journalists, Mitchell writes screenplays. Funny ones. He is a satirist at heart. As a teenager, he spent hours memorizing Bill Cosby routines and watching Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. He even considered humor as a career. "I wanted to write satire," he recalls. "And then I realized that, well, there aren't that many people who pay people to write satire. At least if I go into journalism, I can get paid."

Mitchell describes himself as a Texan, but for the first six years of his life he was a Navy brat. He was born in Springfield, Mo., in 1959 while his mother Jane was visiting relatives. ("She went up there for a baby shower and had me instead.") He next lived in San Diego and San Francisco while his father, Jerry Sr., a Navy pilot, flew F8 Crusader jet fighters off aircraft carriers. In the mid-60s, about the time Klan violence was at its height, his father retired from the Navy and the family moved to the Texas side of Texarkana where the elder Mitchell worked a series of jobs—Texaco distributor, tire salesman, commodities broker and real estate developer. Jerry recalls having little racial awareness growing up, although he still feels guilty today for not defending a black girl who, he says, was "teased unmercifully" after integrating Pleasant Grove Elementary when he was in the second grade. And he remembers his mother dressing him down for using the N-word when he was slightly older, an event he says has had a lasting impact. "I'm very grateful for my mom to have done that," he says. "It would have been so easy for me to be part of the culture I was living in."

"Boo," as he was known, was an only child—for good reason. His father's side of the family suffered from a rare, unnamed fatal illness that combined forms of muscular dystrophy, Paget bone disorder and frontal temporal dementia—before the age of 50. Jerry's grandfather and all four of his siblings died from it; Mitchell's aunt has it today. Five years ago, Mitchell and other members of his family volunteered to be subjects in a research project at Southern Illinois University into the disease. Not only did the doctors find the gene responsible, they determined that neither Jerry nor his father were at risk.

Some argue that Jerry's drive came from a lifelong fear that he had little time to live. But he dismisses that theory. He got his passion, he says, from his father, who regularly played one-on-one basketball with him. This was an extremely physical game, Mitchell recalls, reminiscent of scenes in The Great Santini. "Dad never let me win at anything," he says. "I'll never forget the day I finally beat him in basketball."

Another influence was a steady diet of Bible reading and church attendance. Mitchell's father was a lay Church of Christ minister for a few years; his maternal grandfather preached full time. So when it came time to go to college, Mitchell's choice was relatively simple: Harding, a conservative Christian college (now university) in Searcy, Ark. He majored in speech and journalism, and took over an existing column in the college paper, The Bison. It was called the "Fifth Column" because of its location on the page. "I thought that was hysterical," says Mitchell. "I assumed whoever made that up originally had no clue that 'fifth column' had another meaning."

As a columnist he took on college authorities over a meal ticket program that didn't cover the cost of meals. The school found a better way. He also blasted the college for banning sandals. "The next thing the administration will be telling us is that the apostles wore Nikes," he wrote. He was, he says, something of a rebel, a least the kind of rebel tolerated at a small southern conservative Christian college. He sported a top hat, a Beatles T-shirt, orange suspenders matching his longish hair and mustache (beards were not allowed), bell bottoms and countless musical, political and satirical buttons. In the 1981 yearbook, amid all the photos of seniors in coats and ties and dresses, is an irreverent "Boo Mitchell," in suspenders and top hat, reading a copy of Mother Goose. "I plan on being unemployed," the caption reads. Deadpans Mitchell today: "I had entirely too much fun in college."

After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. He took writing classes at the University of Southern California and supported himself by proofreading yellow page ads. But he couldn't find a job in journalism; plus there was this girl back at Harding, Karen O'Donaghy, who was a year behind him. So he came back, got married, worked briefly at the semi-weekly Panola Watchman in Carthage, Tex., and then joined The Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs, Ark. Along the way, one editor convinced him to drop "Boo" from his byline and another suggested he read All the Presidents Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's account of their Watergate reporting. "It inspired me," he says. "It gave me focus. I was like, 'Yeah, this is what I want to do.'"

For the next three years, Mitchell cut his teeth investigating corruption at a city-run theme park in Hot Springs. "I didn't know how to fashion an investigative story," he says. "I stumbled my way through the whole thing." But he learned a lot, including what he sees as two major lessons. "I recognized the power reporters have," he says. "The other lesson is persistence. As I've told young journalists, you have to be willing to write about a story until you're sick of it."

In 1986, he joined the Clarion-Ledger, the statewide Mississippi paper that had been little more than a house organ for the Ku Klux Klan for more than 60 years. Owned by two brothers, Thomas and Robert Hederman, the paper had been active supporters of Ross Barnett and other segregationist governors.

But in the early 1970s, Robert's son, Rea, took over and began making changes. A recent graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism—hardly a bastion of liberalism at the time—he began staffing the paper with former classmates who made journalistic moves that were standard anywhere else but shocking in Mississippi. Among other things, they actually interviewed blacks; they covered black members of the state legislature, and they reported the votes of Mississippi's congressional delegation in Washington. They also began to do investigative reporting. One of their in-depth stories, looking at poverty among black farmers in the Delta, won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 1979. But anything connected to the Kennedys did not sit well in Mississippi and Rea Hederman, now publisher of The New York Review of Books, was ultimately fired.

By the time Mitchell joined the Clarion-Ledger, the paper was well on its way to turning itself around. In 1982, it was sold to the Gannett chain and the following year won a Pulitzer for a series on education in the state. At first Mitchell was content to work in Tupelo, covering northeastern Mississippi, but two years later he wrangled the job of court reporter in Jackson. Because of his interest in movies, an editor asked him if he wanted to cover the state premiere of Mississippi Burning, a fictitious account of the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. The film changed his life. "I knew nothing. I was totally ignorant and stupid of the civil rights movement," he says. "I always say it was the beginning of my education."

***

It didn't take Mitchell long to get going. On Sunday, September 10, 1989, eight months after seeing Mississippi Burning, he had the lead story in the Clarion-Ledger: "State spied on Schwerner 3 months before death." In it, Mitchell described how a secret state agency known as the Sovereignty Commission had put Schwerner and his wife Rita under surveillance as they worked for the Congress of Racial Equality in Meridian. More ominously, the commission had circulated a description of their car and license plate number to police and sheriff's departments around the state. It was the same car, a 1963 blue Ford station wagon, which the three civil rights workers were driving when they were arrested for speeding on June 21, 1964. They were released from the Neshoba County Jail late that night and never seen alive again.

The Sovereignty Commission had been formed in 1956 to promote segregation and none of its records had ever before been made public. But a handful of commission documents had been mistakenly attached to a lawsuit in Jackson and Mitchell was able to use them as the basis of his story. Thousands of other Sovereignty Commission documents remained sealed, by order of the state legislature. And Mitchell went to work to uncover them. "From that point forward, I was like, 'What else is in there? How can I get it?'" he says.

Three Sundays later, he struck again. This time his front-page article described how the Sovereignty Commission screened prospective jurors during the second trial of Byron de la Beckwith, who had been charged with shooting Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson home just after midnight on June 12, 1963. An all-white, all-male jury had split 6-6 in Beckwith's first trial in January 1964. Before his re-trial, the documents showed, a Sovereignty Commission investigator gathered personal and biographical information on the jury pool, giving such descriptions as "fair and impartial" or "believed to be Jewish" next to each name. That April another all-white, all-male jury deadlocked, this time 8-4 for conviction, and Beckwith was set free. "The state was secretly assisting Byron de la Beckwith's defense," Mitchell says. "And nobody knew that."

The day after Mitchell's story ran, Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, demanded the case be reopened, even though more than 25 years had passed. The day after that, the Clarion-Ledger backed her up in an editorial. And by the end of the month, the district attorney said he would empanel a grand jury.

Until this point, Mitchell had physically seen only the Schwerner documents. He had gotten two independent sources to read him the ones in the Beckwith case. But in December he struck gold. He obtained—don't ask him how—2,400 documents from the Sovereignty Commission. In January 1990 the Clarion-Ledger ran a special report called "Mississippi's Secret Past." They showed how the commission, which was chaired during much of its heyday by Gov. Ross Barnett, "went to unusual lengths to preserve Mississippi's white society—from spying on a group of Jewish children to checking out a black dentist at a white dentist's request."

One of the 15 stories was headlined: "Jackson papers were tools of spy commission." Written by Mitchell, it talked about how the two papers owned by the Hedermans, the Clarion-Ledger and the now defunct Jackson Daily News, "regularly killed stories and ran segregationist propaganda at the request of the Sovereignty Commission."

After that, Mitchell switched tactics. He moved from documents to interviews. His first big one, in April 1990, was with Byron de la Beckwith who, apparently, had not figured out that Mitchell was responsible for the reopening of the Evers case. "I had to pass a whole litany of questions, like, 'Are you white?' 'Where'd you grow up?' 'Who are your parents?' 'Where do you go to church?'" Mitchell says. But he had no problem passing. "I had a conservative Christian upbringing," he laughs. "He loved my answers." There was only one snag. "He was a little concerned when I told him I had a beard," Mitchell says. "But then I found out later that he considered red heads to be the purest of the white race."

The interview was at Beckwith's home in Signal Mountain, Tenn. "He was the most racist person I ever spent any serious time with," Mitchell says. "He'd say ridiculous stuff, like AIDS is more contagious than the common cold. He was nuts." Beckwith also espoused a belief in what is known as "Christian Identity," the idea that whites are superior and have the right to carry out violence against blacks. At one point he quoted the bible as saying blacks were "mongrels." "I knew the bible well enough to know it's not in there," Mitchell says. "But I was happy to play dumb. So I asked him, 'Where exactly is that in the Bible?'" With that, Beckwith took out a standard reference book, Nave's Topical Bible, and tried to look it up in the alphabetical listings. Mitchell says he had trouble keeping a straight face. "He starts flipping through it, thinking he's going to find 'mongrel' somewhere around 'mercy,'" he says. "Needless to say, he did not."

Afterwards, Beckwith insisted on walking Mitchell to the car where he delivered a not-so-subtle threat. "If you write negative things about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you," he told Mitchell. "If God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for him." Beckwith's wife, Thelma, had also insisted on making Mitchell a turkey sandwich. He had politely refused but she stuffed it in his briefcase anyway. Given the threat, and the possibility that Beckwith had agreed to meet him only to kill him, Mitchell tossed the sandwich as soon as he could. "She was as nutty as he was," Mitchell says.

When Mitchell got back from the interview, he had a rude awakening. His editor spiked the interview. "I understand why," Mitchell says. "He kept getting people calling, wanting to know, 'Why are you digging up the past? Leave us alone.' It was all new. No one had ever gone back and done one of these cases before."

So Mitchell was allowed to report news developments in the Beckwith case, but nothing more. Shortly after that Mitchell telephoned Beckwith and got another rude awakening. The one-time Klansman had figured out that Mitchell was the reporter whose stories had led to a third trial. "He said, 'I'm going to live to be 120. I don't know how much longer you've got. I would hate for you to have a wreck or have somebody molest you. Do you know anybody who would do that?'" Mitchell recalls. "And I said, 'Do you?'"

That December Beckwith was indicted on murder charges—and things changed for Mitchell at the Clarion-Ledger. "All of a sudden," he says, "They were like, 'Oh, okay,'" He rewrote his Beckwith interview and the paper ran it. The indictment was the turning point; Mitchell had proved that "investigative history" could be done. "I just can't say enough about what Jerry has done for journalism and for the history of Mississippi," says Ronnie Agnew, the current editor of the Clarion-Ledger. "He's given a paper tucked away in Mississippi a name that's respected everywhere I go."

Beckwith was convicted of murdering Evers on Saturday, February 5, 1994, and sentenced to life in prison the same day. On the following Monday, Mitchell got a phone call from the sheriff. "He told me Beckwith kept saying two words after they took him off," says Mitchell. "I said, 'What two words?" He said, 'Jerry Mitchell.'"

It was just what Mitchell didn't want to hear. "I never thought he'd ever do anything," Mitchell says. "But I always thought he might spout off to some skin head or some white supremacist who'd think, 'Oh I'll make him happy. I'll go and take care of this guy for him.'" That never happened; Beckwith died in custody January 21, 2001.

Next up for Mitchell was Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers. Mitchell nailed him by "working the edges," as he likes to say. He started out doing a story on the relatively short terms the 15 Klansmen convicted in 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer, an NAACP leader, had actually served. But he soon discovered that one of them—Billy Roy Pitts—had not spent a single day in prison for his life sentence. He hadn't exactly disappeared either. Mitchell found him by using switchboard.com.

Ultimately Pitts gave Mitchell a lengthy incriminating taped statement describing what happened on the night two carloads of Klansmen, dressed in white hoods, killed Dahmer, 58, after he announced blacks could pay their poll taxes at his grocery store in Hattiesburg. They had thrown Molotov cocktails at Dahmer's house, but the voting rights champion took out a gun and fired back, allowing his family to escape out the back. Although he died in the fire, he managed to blow out a Klansman's tire and dislodge a gun, leaving plenty of evidence for investigators to find. As a result 15 White Knights had been convicted—but not Bowers. He survived four hung juries in the case.

After talking to Mitchell, Pitts agreed to testify against Bowers and two other Klansmen in a retrial. The three were arrested in May and this time Bowers was convicted. He died in the Mississippi State Prison in Parchman in November 2006 after spending eight years behind bars. He was 82.

Soon after Bowers conviction, Mitchell discovered the imperial wizard had given secret interviews in the mid-1980s to the state's Archives in History project. The conversations were sealed, to be opened only after he died. By the end of 1998, Mitchell had obtained a leaked transcript. What was in it was dynamite. At one point, Bowers implicated Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, a Baptist minister in Philadelphia, Miss., for organizing the 1964 murder of the three civil rights workers. For the next six years, Mitchell pursued Killen, finding important new witnesses as well as documents showing official intransigence, both federal and state, along the way. He even took Killen and his wife to a catfish dinner.

In 2005 his dogged efforts paid off. Killen was arrested and in June a Neshoba County jury convicted him of three counts of manslaughter. He got a 60-year sentence—20 years for each count.

At first the judge was willing to let Killen remain on bail while he appealed. After all, Killen, then 80, had appeared at trial in a wheel chair, with a nurse at his side and an oxygen tube up his nose. When he was sworn in to discuss his condition, he slowly lifted his right hand with his left. But a month later Mitchell reported that Killen had been seen walking around unaided at a filling station, putting gas into his truck. Bail was immediately revoked and Killen has been in custody ever since.

Given Mitchell's many triumphs, it not surprising his den wall is covered with awards. In 2006 alone, he won the George Polk, the Tom Renner, the Vernon Jarrett, and the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Awards, plus he delivered the prestigious Hodding Carter lecture at Syracuse University. He also came in second—to Dana Priest of The Washington Post—for a Pulitzer in beat reporting, the third time he came close to winning one. Since the Pulitzer committee only looks at individual stories or series in any given year, rather than at a lifetime of work, it seems unlikely he will ever get one, especially since so many witnesses—and more importantly, defendants—are dying off.

Mitchell is acutely aware of how little time there is. He keeps the Missing Poster for the three civil rights workers—the case that first inspired him—as his screensaver. It is, he says, a reminder "not to give up." He sees the screensaver every day.