Mississippi-based investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell is a hero in my eyes, and I was happy to see his much-anticipated memoir, “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era,” hit bookshelves earlier this year.
The book – published by Simon & Schuster in February – is a lengthy and emotional walk through the author’s intense career as an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, and I’m proud to recommend it as one of my favorite books.
“Race Against Time” begins with Mitchell’s start as one of the Ledger’s court reporters. He is interested in civil rights-era killings, and his bravery – and determination to win justice – takes hold of his work. Mitchell tackles cold cases that haven’t seen the light of day in years, and he is richly rewarded with numerous convictions of Klansmen who previously escaped justice.
Mitchell’s work was highly dangerous. In the 1980s, when his journey for justice began, the Klan was still highly active in Mississippi – and they made their disdain for Mitchell and his reporting known. Still, he doggedly pursued justice in cases like the assassination of Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP.
Byron De La Beckwith shot Evers with an Enfield 1917 rifle in the early morning hours of June 12, 1963, as Evers was headed into his home. De La Beckwith was arrested for the murder and was tried for the crime – twice – in early 1964, but the juries deadlocked both times. He may have escaped justice forever had it not been for Mitchell’s determination.
The reporter helped unearth new evidence in the Evers murder, and he also put pressure on Mississippi authorities to retry De La Beckwith. He was successful, and De La Beckwith was convicted of murder in 1994.
Mitchell was also instrumental in securing justice for the family of Vernon Dahmer. Dahmer, who lived in the Kelly Settlement near Hattiesburg, was a local civil rights leader famous for his work to secure African Americans the right to vote. Dahmer was also a two-term president of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP.
On the night of Jan. 10, 1966, a group of Klansmen firebombed Dahmer’s home, resulting in his death while defending his family and securing them from harm. Fourteen men were indicted for the Dahmer murder, but only four of them were convicted while another entered a guilty plea. The person who ordered the killings – Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the Klan – was tried four times, and each trial ended in a mistrial.
Once again, Mitchell used his journalistic talents to apply pressure to authorities. He sought out new evidence, built networks of information, cultivated sources and coaxed stories out of them, and his work was rewarded with the state reopening the case on the 25th anniversary of the Dahmer murder. It took seven years, but Bowers was convicted in 1998.
The third story in the book is about Mitchell’s investigation of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He interviewed one of the primary suspects, Bobby Cherry, who had previously evaded justice, and he identified numerous holes in Cherry’s alibi. With this help, the Alabama attorney general was able to reopen the case and convict Cherry.
In its final chapters, the book recounts Mitchell’s extensive involvement in the reopening of the 1964 “Mississippi Burning” murders. Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were working with the Freedom Summer campaign to register African Americans to vote when they were brutally murdered by Klansmen in Neshoba County and then buried in an earthen dam.
Mitchell wrote about the “Mississippi Burning” case for six years and was able to locate new evidence and new witnesses. Through the process of elimination, he was also able to identify Mr. X, a key FBI informant, and make several other invaluable breaks in the case.
His investigation renewed calls for justice around the country, and the case was reopened in 2005. Edgar Ray Killen, a Klan organizer who directed the murders, was indicted on three counts of murder and convicted later that year.
Mitchell’s career has been full of success, and his memoir is a testament to that. It’s also a testament to the power of – and necessity of – investigative journalism. Mitchell is no longer employed by the Ledger, but he founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in 2018. The nonprofit news organization will build off of Mitchell’s past work and continue it.
“Race Against Time” is a great read worthy of your attention. The book features excellent writing and strong pacing, and it’ll leave you wondering how the Klan’s hatred took hold in the South and allowed for such heinous crimes. It’ll leave you unsettled, but it’ll also leave you with hope. It’ll show you that justice is still possible and that people – and attitudes – can change with time.
Joshua Wilson of Hattiesburg is the managing editor of The PineBelt NEWS and Signature Magazine. He is also a book-collecting addict.