For decades, journalists like Jerry Mitchell were the only ones shedding light on cold civil rights-era murder cases
. Now the FBI and Congress are taking another look. Mitchell explains why, when it comes to civil rights, the past isn’t past.
BOB GARFIELD: On February 7th, the Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was reintroduced in Congress. It would create a Civil Rights Cold Case Unit within the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate dozens and dozens of murders, many unreported and untried.
For decades, there hasn't even been a comprehensive list of who these victims were. What little attention they have gotten has come not from law enforcement but from journalists like Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.
For nearly 20 years, Mitchell has parlayed his crime reporting skills into murder convictions. It began by accident when he found previously sealed documents from Mississippi's so-called "State Sovereignty Commission," a secret segregationist spy agency run by Mississippi's governor. The commission had sabotaged the murder trial of the man accused of killing black activist Medgar Evers and infiltrated civil rights organizations. Mitchell was stunned by his discovery.
JERRY MITCHELL: They stole documents. [LAUGHS] They did all this, all this skullduggery, you know. It just made me curious and wanting me to get all the rest of the records, which I eventually did.
So I did those stories about the Evers case, and eventually the district attorney's office reopened the case. And then that led, in December of 1990, to the arrest of Byron de la Beckwith for the killing of Medgar Evers. BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about some of the other cases. JERRY MITCHELL: The main one I'd written about was a man named Vernon Dahmer. His family was literally attacked in the middle of the night by the Klan, firebombs thrown to the house. And he grabbed his shotgun, ran to the front of the house to fire back so his family could escape out the back window, but the fire seared his lungs, and so he died later that day.
Several weeks after, in the mail, came his photo registration card. He had fought his whole life for the right to vote and never gotten a chance to vote himself.
The man who ordered his killing was Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, the head of the Klan in Mississippi. He had been tried in the sixties but had never been convicted in that case. And then this guy came forward, and he called me and said he had overheard a conversation in which Bowers had given the orders to kill Vernon Dahmer. So that case was reopened, and Bowers was convicted in August of 1998.
Bobby Cherry was a suspect in the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls back in 1963. I took him and his wife out for a barbecue, you know, because, well, I guess that's what you take Klansmen out for. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
JERRY MITCHELL: And he said, I didn't have anything to do with that church bombin'. I left that sign shop at a quarter to 10 'cause I had to get home and watch wrestlin'.
So I got back to the newspaper, talked to our librarian Susan Garcia, and I said, Susan, just check with the Birmingham News and see what was on TV that night. The next morning, I got an electronic message from Susan, all in capital letters – THERE WAS NO WRESTLING. There hadn't been wrestling on for years. BOB GARFIELD: You spoke to him at some length and, in fact, many of the men who have since gone to trial and been successfully prosecuted actually granted you long interviews. How did you get these men in your confidence? JERRY MITCHELL: I guess my philosophy has always been everyone has a desire to tell their story, even old Klansmen. And so I try to approach them from that perspective. And I don't come on that strong. Like Beckwith, Byron de la Beckwith, when I sat down and talked with him well, he had all these questions he asked before he would even talk to me, like: are you white, where do you go to church, where did you grow up?
But I knew every answer I gave him he would love. I mean, you know, I didn't make up anything. I just told the truth. And, sure enough, there I was, sitting down and talking to him.
I know when Edgar Ray Killen, who was prosecuted in the Mississippi burning case, the killings of Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney well, now, I took him and his wife out for catfish. At some point, he said, there's some guy in Jackson just keeps stirring things up and stirring things up. I just didn't have the heart to tell him it was me. [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I think it's fair to say that you don't have to go too far back in history when The Clarion Ledger was not exactly a beacon of truth, especially on civil rights issues. JERRY MITCHELL: Well, I mean, The Clarion Ledger had a lot to atone for. Up until 1968, the Sovereignty Commission was sending its reports directly to The Clarion Ledger and its sister paper, The Jackson Daily News. And the newspapers in some cases were printing those stories verbatim. BOB GARFIELD: How about other Southern papers? Were there any that demonstrated, you know, a minimum of racist bias? JERRY MITCHELL: You had papers like The Delta Democrat-Times up in Greenville. Hazel Brannon Smith, who was quite a courageous woman, ran her paper in Lexington, Mississippi, and Bill Minor covered a lot of these stories for The Times-Picayune. There were a handful that were actually reporting the truth out there that I basically relied on to try to piece these things together.
BOB GARFIELD: There are many unsolved cases of civil rights murders for which there is no paper trail. Are you finding yourself stymied in some of these other cold cases? JERRY MITCHELL: The vast majority will never be prosecuted because, you know, when they didn't investigate them at the time, it just makes it doubly difficult to go back and try and investigate them now. A lot of the witnesses have died in these cases. Suspects have died. You know, there's not that much time left. The clock is, is definitely ticking now. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jerry. Thank you very much. JERRY MITCHELL: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.