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Taking Down the KKK
A Reporter Takes on the KKK
Investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell, author of "Race Against Time," recounts his decision to re-open a series of Civil War-era cold cases to bring murderous Klansman to justice and closure to families and communities throughout the South.
A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era
Jerry Mitchell started re-investigating some of the South's most notorious civil rights crimes as a young reporter in the early 1980s. During the next few decades, he coaxed murder confessions from members of the Klu Klux Klan while bringing closure to families and communities. Race Against Time collects four of Mitchell's cases.
A Conversation with Jerry Mitchell
HistoryInFive: When did you know this would be your life’s work? How did this book come to be?
Jerry Mitchell: I didn’t realize this until well into my journey. When legendary civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was asked why she chose to be in the civil rights movement, she reportedly replied something along the lines of “I didn't choose it; it chose me.” That’s the way I feel about these cases and even this book. I didn’t choose it; it chose me.
Hin5: Sixteen years passed between you watching the film Mississippi Burning and the case finally being brought back to the court. How did you keep going?
JM: I was angry. Angry at the injustice. Still angers me that these Klansmen got away with murder, and nobody had ever prosecuted them for killing those three young men. That’s what drove me.
Hin5: How were you able to get both the families of victims and the perpetrators/murderers to talk to you?
JM: It's a great secret, known to those in journalism: everyone wants to tell their story. Even Klansmen. Sure, I could come in with guns blazing in my interview, but my desire, more than anything, is just to get them to talk and then sit back and listen. I want to understand them better, what makes them tick, what makes them racists. One thing that has helped me talk with Klansmen was my upbringing as a Southerner, and it didn’t hurt that I liked barbecue and catfish as much as they did. They believed I shared their mindset because of that background.
I always tell people that one of the greatest rewards I’ve ever received is getting to know these families. Some were wary at first and understandably so. Here I was, a white Southerner poking into these still painful places. But once they understood where I was coming from, they became more than generous with their time and their help.
Hin5: What do you think of race relations in America today? Are you optimistic?
JM: I’m concerned because I sense we have been fracturing as a nation along racial lines, along partisan lines. Like Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers, I remain hopeful that this time where hate is fomented will pass. I certainly see hope in the generations coming up who are less eager to embrace racism and nativism. This, in a very real sense, is the current race against time, a race to see what vision and what identity our nation will embrace as we move into the future.
Hin5: Your specialty, though, is investigative reporting. How did that happen?
JM: Back in early 1983, I was working at a small newspaper in Carthage, Texas, and my boss was a chain-smoking editor, who cut his teeth on covering state lawmakers. When I mentioned my interest in investigative reporting, he asked if I had ever read Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men. I said no. He took a deep drag on his Marlboro and told me to read the book and study how they use attribution. That advice drove me into investigative reporting. I’ve never looked back.
Hin5: Talk about investigative reporting. Why is it important?
JM: The only way a democracy can survive is through transparency, letting the public know what is going on with their government, their tax money, their leaders, and their people. Investigative reporting can help ensure that transparency, shining a light into the dark crevices so that the public can see what is really happening. Investigative reporting can help bring reform, fueling changes that are desperately needed. And finally, investigative reporting can help bring justice to families who have been crying out for so long.
Hin5: Every day, it seems like there is another story about layoffs in journalism. How is your profession going to survive?
JM: This is why I formed a nonprofit called the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, making it possible for the public to invest in investigative reporting that makes a difference. So far, we have been greatly rewarded, with our stories running in almost all the major newspapers in Mississippi. On top of that, our stories have been published around the world as well. We are dedicated to training a new generation of investigative reporters to shine light, ensure transparency, fuel changes, and help bring justice in Mississippi, a place long decimated by its past, its poverty, and its poor leadership.
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