For three decades, Jerry Mitchell (pictured) was an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.
He spent those years digging into crimes so closely aligned with the civil rights era, he little believed it possible there was any stone to be overturned or any clue left to be found.
“I have always been attracted, you could say, to injustices that weren’t being dealt with or corrected,” he says. “Even beyond just civil rights cases.”
One of his first editors had served as a statehouse reporter in Oklahoma who asked Mitchell if he’d ever read All The President’s Men, the classic account of the Watergate scandal. “He told me to read the book and study how they use attribution. It was the best advice I ever got in journalism,” Mitchell says. “I began to learn through that book, to see how you can do that (investigative work) and how it evolved.”
Mitchell, now the director of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, started covering civil rights cases in 1989, shortly after watching the movie “Mississippi Burning,” about the deaths of three activists at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. “I saw it with two FBI agents who had worked on the case… and I was intrigued that nobody got prosecuted for murder. There were 20-something Klansmen involved. That blew my mind.”
In particular, he focused on the case of Edgar Ray Killen, a prominent Klan member at the time of the killings. It had been more than 20 years since the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, but he was inspired by small and incremental breaks in other cases from the era, including the death of Emmett Till.
“I believe there’s always hope, there’s always a possibility in a case you look at,” Mitchell says.
In the Killen case, he was leaked an interview with Sam Bowers, who had been head of the Klan in Mississippi during that time. “He talked about the 1967 federal trial (on conspiracy charges). He said he was quite delighted to be convicted, one of seven Klansmen (to be charged and found guilty). The instigator had walked free. I did a story and the authorities reopened the case in earnest in 1999.”
In 2005, Killen was convicted on three counts of manslaughter. He died in prison in 2018.