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Clarion Call: The Reinvestigation of Civil Rights-Era Crimes

May 6, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: A very long road to today’s trial of a former Klansman, and the work of one newspaper to reopen chapters of civil rights history. Media Correspondent Terence Smith reports.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS, Founder, Medgar Evers Institute: This newspaper, as I said earlier, has certainly changed drastically!

TERENCE SMITH: That’s Myrlie Evers-Williams, chairman emeritus of the NAACP, and widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, addressing the editorial board of the “Clarion Ledger” newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: And here I am sitting here with you now. I look at your board. I look at your staff. It’s so different than what was. And I am so pleased to see it.

TERENCE SMITH: What makes her words and her presence in the publishers’ suite all the more striking is the history of this newspaper, which for years assailed both her late husband and the movement he helped lead. Before and during the civil rights era, the “Clarion Ledger” and its now-defunct afternoon sibling, the “Jackson Daily News,” were family-owned papers, the largest in Mississippi. They not only helped perpetuate segregation; many in Mississippi say they helped inflame it.

BILL MINOR: They were probably one of the very worst newspapers in the country. They were segregationists at heart.

TERENCE SMITH: Newspaperman Bill Minor chronicled the civil rights struggle from Jackson for The New Orleans Times- Picayune. His reporting won him awards, but few friends in the Mississippi establishment. He still writes a syndicated column that today that appears in 30 regional papers, including The Clarion Ledger. Minor said the Jackson papers, then owned by the Hederman Family, were attacked as “seg — or segregationist — rags.” Some critics branded the morning paper the “Clarion Liar.”

BILL MINOR: Bigotry would be at the soul of it, in my estimation, although I would say 90 percent of them would go to church on Sunday and be in the “amen” pew, so to speak.

TERENCE SMITH: Editorials in both Hederman papers railed against integration, the “Jackson Daily News” decrying “race mixing agitators,” and a front page warning against “the mongrelization of the human race.” And this front page headline appeared after the 1963 march on Washington: “Washington Is Clean Again With Negro Trash Removed.”

BILL MINOR: They really promoted segregation through their paper in different ways. And of course, we learned in later years, and suspected back then, that they were being fed these reports from the state Sovereignty Commission. And I used to call it the KGB of the cotton patches.

TERENCE SMITH: Native Mississippian John Hammack has worked at the paper on and off since 1962. He, too, remembers the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the secret, state- sanctioned agency founded in 1956 to undermine federal desegregation efforts and the budding civil rights movement. Hammack says The Clarion Ledger acted as a political arm of the white power structure, largely forbidding its reporters from covering the civil rights movement.

JOHN HAMMACK: So what we reporters did was go out and cover the stories, come back, and feed the information to the Associated Press, who would put it out under an AP carat, and the stories would be published in the paper. And if a question were ever raised about it, the official word was “that’s that liberal AP That’s turning out those stories. Those are not our guys writing that.”

TERENCE SMITH: Hammack vividly recalls another example of the paper’s coverage during that era. An Associated Press story about the arrest of Byron de la Beckwith for the killing of Medgar Evers said Beckwith– seen here on the right being booked — had moved to Mississippi as an infant, but had been born in California.

JOHN HAMMACK: And Mr. Hewitt said, “oh, oh, we have to make use of that.” And they turned the story around, and the headline on the story was… and they rewrote the story to get it higher. I just remember the “California Man Arrested.”

TERENCE SMITH: And except for a small weekly section called “colored news,” Jackson’s black community did not exist in the pages of the Hederman’s papers. Myrlie Evers-Williams.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: None of the news of what my people were doing in our community was available to us. Medgar often said, you know, we live behind the cotton curtain as far as the media was concerned.

TERENCE SMITH: But by the 1970s, The Clarion-Ledger began to change. A young Hederman, Ray, the first in the family to have studied journalism, took over.

JOHN HAMMACK: Integration is more than just opening doors. It’s equal opportunity and equal rights, and Ray embraced that wholeheartedly.

TERENCE SMITH: The younger Hederman instituted the first obituaries for blacks, and had his staff actively cover Jackson’s large black community. Many at the paper credit Ray Hederman with setting the stage for today’s Clarion Ledger. Now owned by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, the paper has published ground-breaking reporting that has led to the reopening of old civil rights-era murder cases. Clarion Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell has been digging into this story for 13 years.

JERRY MITCHELL: What’s amazing to me is to be able to find out new things about things that we thought we already knew everything about.

TERENCE SMITH: However, as a child growing up in Texas, Mitchell says he knew little about the civil rights movement.

JERRY MITCHELL: It’s almost like it happened on Pluto or something. About all I really remember from the civil rights movement is when Martin Luther King was assassinated. That was the only event that really resonated.

TERENCE SMITH: But decades after King’s death, Mitchell’s dogged reporting, combined with a new generation of aggressive federal and local prosecutors, has led to the reinvestigation of 20 civil rights-era killings. To date, a total of 23 people have been arrested, leading to seven manslaughter and murder convictions, one mistrial, and one acquittal. Atlanta-based jury consultant Andrew Sheldon has assisted prosecutors on five of the trials.

ANDREW SHELDON: I call these the reconciliation cases. To me, we have a huge wound as a culture because of the way we have treated an entire race of people. Jerry’s part is seminal. I mean, it’s just… without him, who knows? It may never have happened.

TERENCE SMITH: In 1989, Mitchell gained access to sealed files from the state Sovereignty Commission that showed that the agency hindered the prosecution of the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers outside his Jackson home.

Thanks to his reporting and the tireless efforts of Myrlie Evers-Williams and local prosecutor Bobby Delaughter, the case was reopened in 1989. White supremacist Byron de la Beckwith, whose two tainted trials for the murder resulted in hung juries in 1964, was reindicted in 1990. Shortly before that, Mitchell interviewed Beckwith outside Chattanooga.

JERRY MITCHELL: Signal Mountain is a beautiful place when the sun is going down, but not if you happen to be with Byron de la Beckwith. And so he walks me to the car and he said, “If you write positive things about white Caucasian Christians, God will bless you. If you write negative things about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. If God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for him.”

TERENCE SMITH: Myrlie Evers-Williams reacted to Beckwith’s 1994 conviction, which came almost 30 years to the day after his first trial.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: All I want to do is say yeah! Medgar, yeah!

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: I know the third trial, along with the work of the “Clarion Ledger,” led by Jerry, said 1,000 words to the national public as a whole: That even though these murders, these lynchings, these assassinations took place years ago, that there’s still time to right those wrongs.

TERENCE SMITH: While serving a life sentence, Byron de la Beckwith died last year. And starting today in Birmingham, Alabama, the trial of former Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry will open for one of the most horrific crimes of the civil rights era: The September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls. Another man, Thomas Blanton, was convicted last year. Mitchell’s reporting destroyed Cherry’s alibi.

JERRY MITCHELL: The FBI had already been investigating the case, and actually, he asked me to come interview him.

TERENCE SMITH: He asked you to interview him?

JERRY MITCHELL: Yes, he did. And I was kind of surprised by that. I mean, I wouldn’t exactly be at the top of the list of people to pick, I would think. So I spent about six hours with him, talking with him, and he said, “Well, I didn’t have anything to do with that bombing. I left that sign shop,” and the sign shop is about two and a half blocks from where the church blew up. He said, “I left that sign shop at quarter to 10:00 because I had to get home and watch wrestling.”

TERENCE SMITH: Mitchell checked the television listings. There was no wrestling broadcast the night the bomb was planted, or for years thereafter. Cherry’s alibi, which had gone unchallenged for three and a half decades, was in ruins.

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON, JR. (D) Jackson, Mississippi: I think that in some cases the best way to heal an old wound is to open it up.

TERENCE SMITH: Jackson’s mayor, Harvey Johnson, Jr., Says the successful reopening of the civil rights cases has helped bring painful but necessary change.

MAYOR HARVEY JOHNSON, JR.: The old days are no more here in Mississippi, and I think that again this is reflective of the current attitude and the level of progress, social progress that we’ve reached here in the state, and I think that the paper should be commended for what it’s doing.

TERENCE SMITH: Mississippi has changed dramatically since the bad old days when, as one author put it, the scent of the magnolias mixed with the smell of burning crosses. But attitudes change slowly here. When a proposal to remove the confederate symbol from the state flag was put to a referendum not long ago, a solid majority voted to keep the flag and its tradition intact. Mack Hales, a hardware salesman and regular reader of the “Clarion Ledger,” has mixed feelings about the impact of the paper’s reporting.

MACK HALES: Everybody’s not a redneck here. We’re good people, we work hard, and we want things to be right.

TERENCE SMITH: Has it made a difference? When some of these things are settled? When convictions are arrived at?

MACK HALES: I think so. I think it satisfied the people of the other race and it satisfied the people of my race to get the truth out and get it over with.

TERENCE SMITH: Just up the street at Brent’s Drugs, Jean Jeffries says she fears dredging up the past may bring more negative press to Mississippi.

JEAN JEFFRIES: We have made so much progress here that it’s a shame that we can’t go in a positive way instead of a negative way.

TERENCE SMITH: And how will she view the Bobby Frank Cherry trial?

JEAN JEFFRIES: I hope I can be objective.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you think you can?

JEAN JEFFRIES: I hope I can. I don’t know that I can, but I hope I can.

TERENCE SMITH: There are those who are not objective. The “Clarion Ledger” regularly receives angry letters to the editor about its coverage, and threats have been leveled against Mitchell and his family.

JERRY MITCHELL: Some people have been pretty upset about it. I’ve had friends tell me, you know, “what are you doing digging up this stuff? You know, why don’t you leave it alone?”

TERENCE SMITH: But Mitchell thinks that that would be a mistake, for himself and Mississippi.

JERRY MITCHELL: I think there is redemption in doing the right thing, whether it is me or whether it is Mississippi or the South or the nation or any of us.

TERENCE SMITH: That redemptive journey continues this week in a Birmingham courtroom, when Bobby Frank Cherry stands trial for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.