Features

Clarion caller

Media | Jerry Mitchell's reporting has brought both justice and healing to a divided state.

Issue: "Iraq: Unity in adversity," Feb. 12, 2005

Jerry Mitchell sits at a back diner booth at Jackson, Mississippi's Mayflower Restaurant, where business deals are made at old Formica tables. One past exchange was pure evil. "You don't know how appropriate it is that we are sitting in this booth," says Mr. Mitchell, the 45-year-old's stubbly red-gray beard highlighting a grin. "This is the booth where [assassin] Byron De La Beckwith got the ticking time bomb that he took down to New Orleans in a failed plot to kill the head of the Anti-Defamation League."

Mr. Mitchell, a top investigative journalist, began writing articles in the late 1980s that helped convict Mr. Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers. As Mr. Beckwith left the Jackson, Miss., courtroom in 1994 to serve a life sentence, he derisively mumbled, "Jerry Mitchell." Rob Reiner's 1996 film about the Evers case, Ghosts of Mississippi, features a character based on Mr. Mitchell.

Mr. Mitchell once personally interviewed Mr. Beckwith at the racist's Signal Mountain, Tenn., home. Mr. Beckwith told him, "God will bless you if you write positively about white Caucasian Christians. God will punish you if you don't write positively about white Caucasian Christians. And if God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for Him."

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In reality, by the 1980s the pool of physically dangerous overt racists in Mississippi was so diminished that Mr. Beckwith's warning was fangless fomenting. Still, Mr. Mitchell's work is either strongly loved or disliked by most Magnolia State residents. Mississippi racial-reconciliation leader Dolphus Weary says that Mr. Mitchell has helped pull an unhealthy scab off the state's civil-rights past so that true healing can occur.

Recently, Mr. Mitchell helped resurrect Mississippi's most infamous case-the June 21, 1964, murders of civil-rights workers Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20. The three were eventually found buried in an earthen dam. An itinerant preacher and sawmill worker, Edgar Ray Killen, 79, who lives outside Philadelphia, Miss., will soon be retried by state Attorney General Jim Hood for the murders. In the 1960s, a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of Mr. Killen's guilt when a female juror said she "could never convict a preacher."

Mr. Mitchell's decade of writing also helped convict former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers for a fatal fire bombing that killed a state NAACP official outside Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1966. He rejoices that Mississippi's Klan population is down from about 10,000 then to a few hundred today. "I believe that God has had a hand in all that has happened, including the amazing racial reconciliation [in Mississippi] that I've witnessed over the past 16 years," he said.

Mr. Mitchell, a Texas native and a graduate of Arkansas' Harding University, has always liked journalistic puzzles: "I love it when someone tells me I can't have some information. It makes me want it that much more." But he's learned that people like to "tell their story, even white supremacists."

Mr. Mitchell's editor at the state's Gannet-owned Clarion Ledger, Debbie Skipper, says Mr. Mitchell is atypically open about his Christian faith. "In the South," says Ms. Skipper, "there are a lot of people who feel real strong about religious beliefs. Some in the news business try to suppress [stating their beliefs] to try to deliver a fair report." By contrast, she says, Mr. Mitchell talks openly about his Christianity and is a model of journalistic fairness. "I use him as an example of [fairness]. Jerry always tries to be fair."

While he has won many top journalism awards, Mr. Mitchell's main motivator is doing great work. "All I am is a tool in God's hands," he says. "I don't think I'm 'there' yet."

He says he believes "there is such a thing as absolute truth," and he trusts God to bring justice.

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