Jerry Mitchell at Nieman

Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell speaks at Lippmann House in 2020.

Reporter Jerry Mitchell’s stories have helped lead to the convictions of Ku Klux Klansmen guilty of some of the nation’s most notorious crimes, including the 1963 assassination of the Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four little girls and the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers during Freedom Summer.

For more than 30 years, he’s been on the beat. In addition to prompting prosecutions in race-related murders that occurred during the civil rights movement, his reporting spurred reforms at state agencies and prompted the firing of state officials. From 1986 to 2018, he worked at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. He used some of the money from a MacArthur genius grant he received to start the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

His new memoir is “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era.” Mitchell is pained about the 120 families who lost a loved one and never saw justice done. “I failed more often than I succeeded,”‘ he said. The vast majority of murders during that era didn’t even get investigated, never mind prosecuted. In the summer of 1964 alone members of the Klan beat 80 people, shot another 35 people, and firebombed 68 churches, synagogues, or other buildings connected to the civil rights struggle.

“It’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, look at Mississippi. How terrible they are.’ In a lot of ways, Mississippi is more of a mirror of this nation and race in America,” he said when he spoke at the Nieman Foundation in conversation with 2020 Nieman Fellow Carrie Johnson, who covers the U.S. Justice Department for NPR. Edited excerpts:

On his former paper’s past

I had no idea when I set foot in the door in 1986 that The Clarion-Ledger and its sister paper had been horrible racist newspapers. All I knew is The Clarion-Ledger won a Pulitzer in 1983. In 1967, the Columbia Journalism Review voted The Clarion-Ledger the worst newspaper in America. I didn’t know that coming in. The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission would actually get the paper to kill stories or to run stories. The papers would even run stories verbatim that the commission handed them.

On Woodward and Bernstein

I will say I have got to give credit to Woodward and Bernstein, whose reporting on Watergate was captured in their book, “All the President’s Men.” I worked at this small newspaper in east Texas, where I grew up. My editor chain-smoked Marlboros. That’s back when newsrooms were filled with smoke.  He asked me what I wanted to do in journalism. I said, “I think I’d like to be an investigative reporter.” He asked, “Have you read ‘All the President’s Men’?” I said, “No, I’ve seen the movie.” “Read the book,” he replied, “and study how they use attribution.” Absolutely one of the best pieces of advice I ever received in journalism.

On the Freedom Summer slayings

As reporters, we get angry at injustices. I saw the [1988] movie “Mississippi Burning,” which I don’t even recommend. It’s a fictional film about the killings of the three civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

I happened to attend the press premiere of the film with a couple of FBI agents who investigated the case. There were 20 Klansmen involved in killing these three young men, and nobody had even been prosecuted for murder. That was something I couldn’t get my head around. I thought, “Wait a minute. I’ve heard of people getting away with murder, but more than 20 people involved in a triple murder?”

It was a huge, huge story. The workers disappeared June 21st, 1964; their bodies were found August 4th, 1964. There were 44 days between.

The Klan had burned a church down and beat members. Then the three came to investigate. It was all planned out. The deputy sheriff arrested them and then released them into the hands of the waiting Klansmen.

On interviewing Klansmen

They [Klansmen] thought I was one of them. That sounds strange, but, in some ways, they did. I’m the opposite of Mike Wallace. I didn’t come in, guns blazing. I don’t think that’s a great way to approach interviewing people. Everybody wants to tell their life story. I was happy to sit and listen to it. I always try to talk to these Klan guys as early as possible until they quit talking to me. You listen to people talk about their dreams or ambitions, what they love, all that kind of stuff. It’s almost like a deposit that pays off later.

On the relevance of history

History, for whatever reason, seems to circle back around in some ways. It feels like that’s what’s happening around the world. It’s the rise of white nationalism and white supremacy and violence from that that we haven’t had in a while.

Some people think, “Who cares about history?” A young man named Dylann Roof walked into the Charleston, South Carolina church five years ago and killed those young, beautiful people in that historic African American church. Do you know what he was reading before he went in there? He was on a website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which are the direct descendants of the white Citizens’ Council in Mississippi. That was what inspired him to go in and do that.

Mississippi and other Southern states literally kept track of how much they spent per student by race. When you went to places like the Mississippi Delta, they might be spending $167 — this is, obviously, in the dollars back then — for a white student and $1 for a black student. I looked at the racial disparity in education spending in Mississippi from 1890 till 1960. In modern dollars, the estimate I came up with is $25 billion. That’s a staggering figure. It makes me wonder what that figure is nationally.

We don’t know our history. You can go to almost every county in Mississippi, and there’s a Confederate statue at the courthouse. They weren’t built after the Civil War; they were built in the early 1900s and beyond. They were built in rebellion to Reconstruction where Mississippi had hundreds of black officeholders.

After the Union troops left in 1875 and 1876, whites began to retake power by hook or crook, initially, by violence and, eventually, they created the 1890 constitution, which, of course, the Southern states all quickly copied where they put poll taxes in place. We had to give a constitutional quiz to voters.

Then the Mississippi legislature two years later wiped everybody off the voting rolls. You had to start over. They said it out loud. They said, “We are doing this to restore white supremacy.” We don’t know that history.

When we’re writing about, “Oh, here’s this Confederate statue being taken down,” the historical context of that is pretty important. It’s not just that it’s being taken down. The reason those statues were built in the first place was to reestablish white supremacy.

On the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Mississippi needs more investigative reporting, not less. All these newsrooms are shrinking. Yes, it’s happening elsewhere but it’s happening more acutely in Mississippi.

Our stories are running in almost all the major newspapers in Mississippi along with Mississippi Today, which is a big online publication now. They’re running in The Guardian in London. They’re running on the front page of USA Today. That’s just within one year.

The funding model now is about half foundation funding, half personal contributions. ProPublica paid my salary all last year. We worked together on the stories about Parchman Prison, which used to be a plantation prison. It made the equivalent of about five million bucks, I think within a two-year period, for the state of Mississippi. It was a cash cow. Essentially, what they did is they used African-American inmates as slaves. Not only did they work the plantation of Parchman, they hired them out. We reported about conditions and about a bunch of these gangs carrying out violence with impunity.

The Justice Department recently announced that they’re investigating Mississippi prisons, including prisons we reported about.

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