Extended Interview: Jerry Mitchell

April 18, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: When you came to Jackson, I don’t suppose it was with this line of work you had in mind, was it?

JERRY MITCHELL: No, I actually was a bureau reporter when I started at the Clarion-Ledger and just covered Northeast Mississippi, and came — then moved to Jackson in late ’87, and was a court reporter, and that’s essentially what I was doing when I stumbled upon these stories the first time.

TERENCE SMITH: And you had grown up in Texas?

JERRY MITCHELL: I grew up in Texas, that’s right.

TERENCE SMITH: And had the civil rights revolution or the civil rights story been a particularly immediate one to you?

JERRY MITCHELL: Oh, no, not at all; in fact, the opposite. It’s almost like it happened on Pluto or something. I was pretty young at the time of the civil rights movement. About all I really remember from the civil rights movement is when Martin Luther King was assassinated. That was the only event really that really resonated.

TERENCE SMITH: Did your family have either involvement in it or attitudes towards it?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, you know, typical kind of Southern upbringing. My family was not segregationists, but on the other hand, they were not raving liberals either. So it was somewhere in between there. I will say my mom and dad raised me right about race. I remember when I was about eight or nine or something like that, I came home and said the “N” word. I picked it up from a friend, and my mom like chewed me out, like I had committed a capital offense. I really credit my parents for raising me right.

TERENCE SMITH: When you were, therefore, here and already at the paper, how did you get involved in all of this, looking into some of these altercations?

JERRY MITCHELL: I got interested in the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which was a State segregationist spy agency, and I got a tip that there were some Sovereignty Commission files which were sealed, but some of the files had supposedly been accidentally filed in an open-court file. So I went, and sure enough there they were, and I did a story about that, and that peaked my interest. And then that led me to find out about the Sovereignty Commission’s involvement in the Medgar Evers case.

TERENCE SMITH: And what year was that when you worked on the first of these stories?


TERENCE SMITH: So it’s now been 13 years that you’ve been looking into some of these cases. And that led you to the Medgar Evers case. Tell me how that unfolded.

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, basically I found out that at the same time that the State of Mississippi was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the killing of Medgar Evers, this other arm of the State Sovereignty Commission, which was headed by the governor, was secretly assisting the defense in trying to get Beckwith acquitted.

TERENCE SMITH: And there was hung jury.


TERENCE SMITH: Right. So that in itself was a scandal and certainly a story.

JERRY MITCHELL: Absolutely. I did a story, and basically Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers, asked for the case to be reopened. And at the time that she asked for this, there was just there was no evidence, no murder weapon, no transcript, nothing.

TERENCE SMITH: But she asked for it on the basis of the fact that the Commission had interfered with the case.


TERENCE SMITH: And I suppose by then there was a new generation of prosecutor in all of this.

JERRY MITCHELL: That’s true. Bobby De Laughter was the prosecutor. He kind of took it on himself to reinvestigate this case, and by the end of 1990, Byron De La Beckwith was indicted in that case.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. And you continued to cover that through his conviction.

JERRY MITCHELL: Yeah, his conviction in ’94.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. And he was sentenced to?

JERRY MITCHELL: Life. Life in prison.

TERENCE SMITH: Tick off for me the cases because this started something that’s still rolling. How many have there been, and can you summarize them for me?

JERRY MITCHELL: We’ve written about a lot of these cases, but in terms of cases that have been reexamined as a result of us writing about them, there’s been the Medgar Evers case. There’s been the Vernon Dahmer case, in which Sam Bowers was convicted. The [murder of the] three civil rights workers, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, is now being reinvestigated. Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee were both killed by the Klan in ’64, and that’s being reinvestigated now by the FBI. Also, the case in Birmingham, the Bobby Frank Cherry case, we wrote about that as well.

Nationwide, there have been 20 different killings from the civil rights era that have been reexamined. There have been 23 arrests, 7 convictions, 1 mistrial and 1 acquittal.

TERENCE SMITH: So what’s going on here? What’s causing our society to look back at its own recent history?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, I think what’s happening is Mississippi in the South, and I think the nation as a whole, is able to look back more clearly on these times than we were during the ’60s. The racial attitudes were so much different, segregation was very much a fact in the South, and so people really were opposed to civil rights movement. And in fact I interviewed someone not too long ago — a former state official — who was talking about the civil rights workers and basically said he felt like they got what they deserved.

In other words, they felt like these people were invading Yankees coming down where they shouldn’t be and got what they deserved. That was kind of the feeling and the attitude, and therefore it was very difficult to get convictions in those days.

TERENCE SMITH: And the extraordinary thing is that this paper, the Clarion-Ledger, was part of that segregationist tradition for many, many years.

JERRY MITCHELL: Oh, yes, absolutely. Very much involved with the Sovereignty Commission. In fact, this paper received Sovereignty Commission reports directly for many years. They weren’t public. They were secretly receiving them. In fact, when they got cut off, they complained to the Commission that these memos were getting cut off to them. The paper, the Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News, would run stories handed to them by the Commission verbatim, without doing anything, no questions asked.

TERENCE SMITH: And how did you come across that fact?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, basically what happened is I developed sources, people who had access to Sovereignty Commission records, and by the end of ’89, we basically got about 2,400 pages of Sovereignty Commission records, and then we proceeded to do stories about all of these various things.

TERENCE SMITH: And then you are going through the records and you find the Clarion-Ledger front and center. So what did you think when you came across that?

JERRY MITCHELL: I was pretty horrified. I didn’t really know the past of the paper here at that point that well, and I was pretty horrified. So I said we’ve got to do a story about what the paper itself did, and so we did. We wrote a story that said the Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News ran racial propaganda and assisted the Commission in these various events.

TERENCE SMITH: And were your editors okay with that? Did they support you in that?

JERRY MITCHELL: They supported that, sure did. They had no problem with that.

TERENCE SMITH: And they agreed with you that the paper had to come clean?

JERRY MITCHELL: I think, yes. We’ll say hypothetically if the paper hadn’t, then we would have egg on our face, I really think, because if we aren’t willing to come clean about ourselves, how can we expect the same treatment of others.

TERENCE SMITH: You said earlier that you think society and the people in Mississippi are better able now to look back at themselves and their own paths. What makes them better able to do it now than 20 or 30 or 40 years ago?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, there ended up being this division [during the civil rights movement], so to speak, that whites kind of were on one side, blacks on another, here in Mississippi, for the most part. And so what happened is people weren’t able to see things clearly. In other words, they viewed things [like], well, segregation is the way it is, and that’s the way it’s always going to be, and not being able to see down the road, not being able to see the reality of the situation. And now that that’s all behind us here in the South, [now] that segregation is no longer part of the way of life in the South, that we have integration. In fact, Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state. It’s, it’s a fascinating transformation that’s taken place in Mississippi, I think.

TERENCE SMITH: And in a sense it’s mirrored by the transformation at this newspaper.

JERRY MITCHELL: Sure. I think, I think so. This paper began to be transformed when Rea Hederman took over the paper, and that transformation I think has continued.

TERENCE SMITH: Let’s talk a little about the Bobby Frank Cherry case the one that is currently at trial.


TERENCE SMITH: How did that — how did that get reopened, and what was your role in it?

JERRY MITCHELL: The FBI had already been investigating the case, and actually [Cherry] asked me to come interview him. 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, but nonetheless he asked, and I went, well, sure, I would love to talk to you.

And he said he was innocent. He didn’t have anything to do with the bombing. So I went down. I spent about six hours with him.

TERENCE SMITH: When was this?

JERRY MITCHELL: This was in 1999, summer of ’99. 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 a quarter to ten because I had to get home and watch wrestling,” and then he pulled out an affidavit, a sworn affidavit from this woman that says, you know, “Yes, I remember that night well. We were all sitting around watching wrestling.”

TERENCE SMITH: On television.

JERRY MITCHELL: Right, exactly, watching wrestling on the local television there in Birmingham. And so I got back here to the newspaper and asked — went to the library, and Susan Garcia and said, “You know, Susan, check with the Birmingham News and just see what was on TV that night.” The next, the next morning when I got in, I had an electronic message from Susan. Not only was there not wrestling on [television] that night, there wasn’t wrestling on for years.

TERENCE SMITH: So what did you do?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, I wrote a story. I also called him back, and confronted him, and he basically said “Of course, wrestling was on, you know, they’re wrong.”

TERENCE SMITH: So he stuck with his story.

JERRY MITCHELL: He stuck with the story. He actually said wrestling was definitely on.

TERENCE SMITH: So he built his whole alibi around the notion that he was watching wrestling on television and that’s why he remembered it. But there wasn’t any wrestling on television.

JERRY MITCHELL: There wasn’t any wrestling on. It is true that he and his family did watch wrestling, but that was at a later point in time.

TERENCE SMITH: What happened then? You wrote a story that said…?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, basically, that for three and a half decades his alibi had basically gone unchallenged, and now, lo and behold his alibi doesn’t stand up. And he ended up being indicted along with Tommy Blanton.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. And then there was a period there where there was some question as to his mental stability and his capacity to stand trial?

JERRY MITCHELL: That’s true, and then they had some hearings, and in the end, the judge ruled that he was competent to stand trial. So now he is going on trial.

TERENCE SMITH: Based on your experience in these cases, is the prosecution likely to bring a strong case against Bobby Frank Cherry?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, I think from everything that we have seen, at least publicly, a lot of it is going to rely on things that he said himself. I think a lot of the case will hinge on the stories that he’s told over the years and how those stories have changed.

I’m fascinated with all of these cases. It’s just it’s amazing. What’s amazing to me, and I love history, but what’s amazing to me is to be able to find out new things about things that we thought we already knew everything about. New witnesses. In a lot of these cases, we have new witnesses, new information, things that weren’t known back then.

TERENCE SMITH: You said you’re fascinated by these cases. And the history by this cases. It sounds as though they’ve sort of gotten a little bit of a hook into you. Why?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, I think for whatever reason — and this is aside from whether it’s a civil rights murder or whatever kind of murder — it sticks in my craw for people to kind of get away with crime. And particularly get away with murder. So it’s fascinating to me as a former court reporter to read the transcripts, to look at the evidence that they had back in those days.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s the necessary ingredient? What do you need to reopen an essentially cold case?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, what I found for the most part in these cases is the better the investigation was at the time, the better chance you have of pursuing a case now. If it was a case that was not very thoroughly investigated, it makes it really difficult to go back.

I know we had a case here in Jackson. Ben Brown was shot in the back, and it would seem to me it would have been a very simple thing. He was shot by a law enforcement officer. There was no question about that. It seems to me it would have been very easy to take that night and just write down who was standing where and what kind of gun they had, but they didn’t bother to do that. So that makes it a lot more problematic to come back and investigate.

TERENCE SMITH: And then I believe that you’ve uncovered sometimes the location of the crime, federal property, that sort of thing can be enough to get a case reopened. Tell me how that affected the Ben Chester White case.

JERRY MITCHELL: Ben Chester White was killed by Klansmen in 1966. What they were essentially trying to do is lure Martin Luther King Jr., to the Natchez, Mississippi, area to kill him. It was during the Meredith March from Memphis to Jackson, which Martin Luther King took part, and so he was literally marching through Mississippi at that time. And so these Klansmen decided, hey, we’ll kill a black man, and he’ll run down here, and then we can kill him, and that was the mentality that they had.

And so they did do that. They basically got a guy — he wasn’t a civil rights worker at all. He was a plantation worker. And told him they needed help finding a dog. And so dragged him out to the middle of the woods, and they shot him to death, and his last words were, “Oh, Lord, what have I done to deserve this?”

And so [ABC News’ 20/20 program] found out in ’99, that it took place on federal property, so, therefore, the case could be reopened. In fact, actually, originally, the plan was not initially focused on reopening the case. They were just focused on doing stories about these cases that weren’t reopened, and they happened to find out that it was on federal property. So that case was reopened for that reason.

TERENCE SMITH: What kind of reaction have you gotten, has the paper gotten from people when these articles have appeared, when these cold cases have been reopened?

JERRY MITCHELL: Some people have been pretty upset about it. We’ve gotten angry calls, letters to the editor. I’ve had friends tell me, what are you doing digging up this stuff? Why don’t you leave it alone?

TERENCE SMITH: What do you say?

JERRY MITCHELL: I think it’s important.

TERENCE SMITH: Any threats?


TERENCE SMITH: What threats?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, I had Beckwith threaten me a few times, and I had a more serious threat I guess in ’98, when there was a guy who called me anonymously, but he called me several times, and that was actually investigated.

TERENCE SMITH: And what did he threaten to do?

JERRY MITCHELL: He threatened to harm me and my family.

TERENCE SMITH: Did you take it seriously?

JERRY MITCHELL: Oh, sure, sure. That kind of specific threat I think you’ve got to take seriously.

TERENCE SMITH: What did you do about it?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, the federal authorities investigated it and were able to, as best they could determine, he wasn’t connected to any kind of hate group or anything like that.

TERENCE SMITH: The letters to the editor, and the general reaction that you get and the reception you get when you move around this community – what have they been like?

JERRY MITCHELL: There are some people that obviously don’t like it, but there are other people who are supportive of it. It’s been interesting to me. When I first started doing these stories, there was a lot of hostile reaction, but that hostile reaction has begun to fade over time.

TERENCE SMITH: Did those people who reacted positively or negatively to what you were doing break down on racial lines?

JERRY MITCHELL: Yeah, typically.


JERRY MITCHELL: Well, namely, many of the white Mississippians didn’t like what I was doing. Typically, I’d say it would tend to break down by age as well, that the people who were from the older generation, white Mississippians were less happy with what I was doing than black Mississippians were.

TERENCE SMITH: What would they say, those that were unhappy with it?

JERRY MITCHELL: Just what I was saying, you know, that what are you doing digging up the past? I remember one day I got an anonymous phone call when I was writing about the Medgar Evers case, and this man said, “What are you doing writing about this dead `N word’?” And that kind of thing.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s been the attitude of the paper, over this dozen years or so that you’ve been working on these things, about taking the time and money, and investment and resources that this has required?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, the paper has been very supportive of me. They have let me go down these rabbit trails, and chase these cases, and write about them and spend a lot of their money doing it, and they’ve been very supportive of that, and editorially we’ve been very supportive. From the very beginning when I wrote about the Sovereignty Commission’s role in the Medgar Evers case, the newspaper immediately editorialized that the case should be reopened.

TERENCE SMITH: What about the prosecutors? When you write these stories, what do they do?

JERRY MITCHELL: It varies. It’s like anything you do as a reporter. I mean, sometimes you write something and people react to it, and sometimes you write something, and you may think it’s brilliant, but they do nothing.

But what I will say is I think what we’re witnessing is the authorities, and the prosecutors, and people, FBI agents and others that are involved, are really from a new generation. They are mostly white Southerners who basically are my age or a little bit older — middle-age southerners who were basically children during the civil rights era, maybe a little bit older, and so they have a different view, I think, of what happened. And I have heard prosecutors like Bobby De Laughter say murder is murder. It doesn’t really matter what the politics of it are.

TERENCE SMITH: And they sound as though they’re willing to look into things that their predecessors were not.

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, they have been willing to look into things their predecessors weren’t willing to look at or take seriously or push forward. Now I will say the prosecutor at the time in the Beckwith case, Bill Waller, tried his best to convict Beckwith back in the ’60s. So I don’t know that it was always a reticence of the prosecutors even back then. It just so happens that I think the attitudes among the latter group of people I think have changed.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you feel that there is some kind of redemption in doing this?

JERRY MITCHELL: I do believe this is redemptive. I do believe what’s happening is redemptive. Bob DeLaughter in his closing arguments in the Beckwith case said, “Is it ever too late to do the right thing?” And I think that’s what we’re talking about. Is it ever too late to do the right thing? And I think the answer, hopefully, is no, it’s never too late to do the right thing.

TERENCE SMITH: And that there is some redemption in doing it.

JERRY MITCHELL: I think so. 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.