Page 4 of 4

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 4:46 PM PST

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.

Page 4 of 4
Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.