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.