For two decades now, Jackson Clarion Ledger reporter
Jerry Mitchell has been reinvestigating old Civil Rights era crimes and helping bring their perpetrators to justice. Mitchell updates us on the progress he's made on some big cases and explains how he gets criminals to tell him their stories.
BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. For about 20 years now, Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell has been, to quote one of the people he’s sent to prison, “stirring things up.” Mitchell reinvestigates old Civil Rights era cases and advocates for those cases to be retried. His stories, interviews and research have helped send four members of the Ku Klux Klan to prison, years after law enforcement stopped investigating their crimes.
We originally spoke with Mitchell last year, but we wanted to catch up with him because he’s made some good progress in his investigation of the so-called “Mississippi burning incident,” which involved the murder of three civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in Mississippi, in June of 1964. JERRY MITCHELL: I managed to get a hold of the entire FBI case file, which is rather voluminous, nearly 40,000 pages, and I also have the entire state of Mississippi investigative file, and so basically have been going through those documents. And what I've found so far is three potential new witnesses against Billy Wayne Posey, one of the five suspects, that are still living, in that case.
Initially, authorities didn't go and talk with these people, but now my understanding is the authorities are now trying to go and talk with these potential new witnesses, and taking another look at the case. BOB GARFIELD: Now Jerry, I know spy agencies and investigative reporters are loathe to reveal sources and methods, but this began with you got a hold of the entire 40,000-page FBI file on the case. Would you care to share with me how in the world you pulled that off? JERRY MITCHELL: Well yeah. [LAUGHS] I didn't file a FOIA. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER] I didn't file a Freedom of Information Request - [LAUGHTER] - which cracks me up. Sometimes people will say - think I'm some kind of expert on FOIA, and I'm like, no, I - I'm really not very good at it at all.
I've developed sources over the years and, of course, I've been covering these cases now - almost 20 years now I've been writing about this case, especially, and many other cases. BOB GARFIELD: Since we last spoke, you've also uncovered new information about James Earl Ray who was convicted of assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 and who has subsequently died in prison. What’s the development there? JERRY MITCHELL: There are some FBI documents, as well as some Miami police documents, that suggest the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan played a role in the death of King, specifically trying to jam police radios that day that King was killed, April 4th, 1968.
In addition to those particular documents, we also found out from FBI documents that word of a bounty, a reward, so to speak, by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan got into the cell where James Earl Ray was being held in Missouri back in 1967, so obviously before King was assassinated. And one of the inmates there told the FBI that Ray said to him he was going to kill King to get the bounty.
One of the things that I'm trying to work on now is to get those documents that do exist, but they're redacted, and try to get those in some kind of unredacted form. BOB GARFIELD: Do you ever write a story that may be a little murky, a little amorphous, even a little thin, with the expectation of drawing out yet more information, more sources to flesh the narrative out still more? JERRY MITCHELL: Absolutely. I think when I was a young reporter I thought I had to have the whole puzzle figured out. And as I've gotten to be a, hopefully, a better reporter, I've learned that you can basically, if you have a piece, just like I have with the Martin Luther King case, you just kind of take ‘em out there and see what comes up. BOB GARFIELD: In what other ways is your technique evolving? You've got the advantage of digital technology. JERRY MITCHELL: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] BOB GARFIELD: But let's say, unlike some carpetbagger Yankee reporter coming down to - JERRY MITCHELL: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: - Mississippi - JERRY MITCHELL: That’s right. BOB GARFIELD: - you've got some other old-fashioned advantages, like your accent, and you’re willing to take Klansmen to barbecue. I mean, that’s – that’s something. JERRY MITCHELL: And I'm white, too. That helps. And I've taken Klansmen out for barbecue, for catfish. I believe in taking people out to eat. It’s worked for me so far.
I remember one time – this is pre-Internet days – I was trying to track down this guy, one of the two policemen who gave Byron De La Beckwith an alibi in the Medgar Evers case. Medgar Evers was killed in Jackson in 1963, assassinated, and Beckwith did it and was later convicted.
And so, I was trying to find one of those guys that gave him the alibi. I called – he had a real unusual last name – his name was Hollis Creswell, with one S. And so, I just happened to have an old phone directory for Greenwood, Mississippi, which was where he had lived, and there were some of the same last names. So I figured well, heck, you know, they've got to be related.
And so, I picked out a name that looked promising and asked for him, as you know, put on my best Southern accent, you know. [BOB LAUGHING] Is Hollis there? [LAUGHS] And the guy answered and said oh, no, you want my cousin. He, he lives over in Maben. Here, let me give you the number. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER] Yeah, you got to love Southerners. It’s a [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: Now, that raises the question of the passage of time, not in terms of the death of perpetrators and witnesses, but in the kind of complacency setting in among those who were involved, and they figure they've gotten away with it for four decades. Did they let their guard down? JERRY MITCHELL: I think you’re absolutely correct. I mean, I took Bobby Cherry out to barbecue. He ended up getting’ convicted. Edgar Ray Killen, I took him out for catfish, and he got convicted. And, and both those guys very much assumed nothin’ would ever happen, happen to em, and told me that.
Killen told me he - that he would never be prosecuted. He’s now able to, from the bowels of prison, say that that statement proved not to be correct. BOB GARFIELD: Is it your sense that although the days of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are thankfully long behind us - JERRY MITCHELL: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: - that there remains a kind of enduring sympathy for the entrenched racism of the period that is protecting men to this day? JERRY MITCHELL: There’s a, a certain amount of sympathy for some of these guys. I know I've had people tell me, oh, Jerry, you know, why don't you leave these old guys alone, and things like that.
But, you know, really they're just young killers who got old, you know? And there are still people out there who, obviously, would protect these guys. But I think that’s slowly dying out, and it may have to do with the passage of time.
Hopefully it has to do with maybe some people changing their minds or changing their hearts. BOB GARFIELD: You have said that there’s maybe a window of another five years in which people are going to be alive long enough or lucid long enough to put together a prosecution. But the newspaper business is dying pretty fast itself, and The Clarion-Ledger is a Gannet paper. Gannet’s stock price has tanked. JERRY MITCHELL: Yeah, plummeted. [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: And I'm just curious whether there’s five years left in The Clarion-Ledger to pay for the kind of single-minded coverage that you’re contributing. JERRY MITCHELL: So far, so good. They've been totally supportive and continue to support me, and I think I'll be able to continue this for the next five years.
I think journalism is one of the most noble professions in the world, and I’m just - feel so fortunate to be a part of it. BOB GARFIELD: I feel fortunate that you’re part of it [LAUGHS] myself. JERRY MITCHELL: Thanks, I appreciate that. BOB GARFIELD: Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]