Southern Review of Books

The Journalist Who Helped Solve the Mississippi Burning Murders

“There is no statute of limitations for murder.” Those eight words, an offhand remark by a source to a junior reporter for a Mississippi newspaper, set Jerry Mitchell on a decades-long quest to see justice done in four of the most shocking and infamous murder cases of the civil rights era. Race Against Time is his spellbinding account of how his dogged reporting and relentless pursuit of the truth changed history.

It began, like many journalistic investigations, with a chance encounter. Mitchell had been covering the courts for the Clarion-Ledger, in the state capital, Jackson, for three years in 1989 when he attended a screening of Mississippi Burning. As the movie recreated the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers ambushed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, Mitchell’s silver-haired seatmate offered a running commentary on what was accurate and what had been fictionalized. When the houselights went up, he discovered the man was a retired FBI agent who had investigated the murders.

No one had been convicted of killing New Yorkers Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, who had come to Mississippi to help to register black voters, and a local African-American man, James Chaney. Seven Klan members, including a deputy sheriff, were convicted and jailed under federal laws for violating the victims’ civil rights but the killers had never been prosecuted for murder, even though their identities were widely known.

That injustice put Mitchell on the trail of three others. The 1963 assassination of black leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson home. The bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama the same year, which killed four young girls. The Klan’s firebombing in 1966 of the home of prominent Mississippi civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer, who died of his injuries.

The key to cracking these cold cases was a cache of secret records of Mississippi’s State Sovereignty Commission, a government agency set up in the 1950s to fight desegregation. It became a clearing house for information, collected by a network of spies, on thousands of people deemed “subversive, militant or revolutionary” – code for civil rights sympathizers and activists. The information had been shared with members of the all-pervasive Klan, helping them to target workers such as Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.

Mitchell spent months trying to get his hands on the elusive documents (one of his editors dubbed them “our Pentagon Papers”). He could only glean fragments from sources who had seen them until one invited him to his office in late 1989 and pointed to a half-dozen, blue-covered notebooks on a shelf. “They’re yours,” said the source, who remains unnamed even now. Mitchell walked out with 2,400 pages of explosive revelations.

The narrative moves at a steady, methodical pace, from one revelation to another, and there’s drama here. Mitchell had to watch his back as the FBI tried to find out who was leaking information to him. There were tense interviews with men who had escaped justice for years and were not pleased, to put it mildly, to be back in the news. A warning that his life could be in danger prompted him to start checking under the hood of his car, to make sure no one had planted a bomb.

Think Spotlight meets All the President’s Men. Mitchell, a born storyteller with a remarkable story to tell, recreates his investigation with the absorbing detail and in-the-moment feel of a police procedural. Readers are along for the ride as he tracks down leads, forges ahead after demoralizing setbacks, and extracts nuggets of information from reluctant sources. They share the sense of victory as key pieces of information come to light and when he finally gets his hands on documents long hidden or long forgotten.

Thanks to his revelations and the public pressure his stories created, prosecutors reopened these cases and secured long-overdue convictions of the surviving killers. Sam Bowers, a former Klan leader, was finally convicted imprisoned in 1998 for ordering the attack that killed Vernon Dahmer. In 2005, eighty-year-old Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter for his role in the murder of the three civil rights workers in the Mississippi Burning case.

Mitchell discovered that his own paper had promoted segregation in the 1960s and had helped the Klan to discredit supporters of the civil rights movement. The Clarion-Ledger had cleaned up its act by the 1990s – collecting a Pulitzer Prize for its advocacy of educational reforms – and to its credit, published Mitchell’s exposés of its own odious past.

Race Against Time underscores the importance of solid, fearless, public-spirited journalism – something more vital than ever in our time of social media distraction and self-serving dismissals of uncomfortable truths as “fake news.” It’s a call to arms against the resurgence of white supremacy and hate crimes. Most of all, Mitchell’s inspiring story of how he told truth to power is a reminder that it’s never too late to do the right thing.

Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era
By Jerry Mitchell
Simon & Schuster
Published February 4, 2020