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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

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.'"

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