When I first thought about writing a column on Jerry Mitchell’s book, “Race Against Time,” I thought of the irony that the book was a victim of bad timing.
It came out at the end of February, just when a certain worldwide news story began to dominate the headlines.
Now, sadly, with the horrible death of the African-American man, George Floyd, at the hands of a Minnesota cop, it is timely again.
Mitchell is a journalist who never gave up in the search for truth and justice in several Civil Rights Era murder cases. In those cases, many of the cops truly were the bad guys.
As a young reporter working for the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, in 1988, Mitchell went to see the film “Mississippi Burning.”
He overheard a man who turned out to be a retired FBI agent making comments about the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of scenes in the film.
When the film ended, Mitchell turned to the man and asked him about it. That launched him on a journey to investigate and help persuade authorities to reopen such cold cases as the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964, and of Medgar Evers in Jackson in 1963.
He also worked on the case of the young four black girls murdered in the infamous 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and the murder of Vernon Dahmer Sr., whose Mississippi home was firebombed in 1966.
Mitchell is a terrific journalist. His writing is spare and to the point, like newspaper style, and his investigative abilities would be the envy of any detective.
In these and other cases, men got away with murder because the local authorities either looked the other way or were in on it.
I couldn’t help marveling at the tremendous courage it took to write these stories, trying to reopen murder cases that the murderers — and their vicious allies — wanted to remain closed.
Mitchell gives great detail, allowing you to feel the horror the civil rights workers — Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney — must have felt as a car kept following theirs down those dark country roads and ultimately switched on its flashing lights.
The cops stopped them, the (other) Klansmen surrounded them, and all three young men were shot and killed. They were buried in an earthen dam, and their bodies discovered six weeks later.
The young men were in Mississippi to help blacks register to vote.
Seven Klansmen, including a sheriff’s deputy were charged with civil rights violations under federal law but spent little time behind bars.
No one was tried for murder until 2005, when the suspected ringleader, the man who ordered the hit, Edgar Ray Killen, was convicted.
Killen persuaded the judge to let him out on bail pending appeal, based on his age and infirmities. But Mitchell broke the story that Killen was out driving around in his truck, pumping his own gas, looking much fitter than he presented himself in court.
The angry judge revoked the bail.
Mitchell’s reporting help convict Byron de la Beckwith in the murder of Medgar Evers.
He found that a state commission had interfered in jury selection in the two murder trials in the 1960s, both of which ended in hung juries.
That led to a new trial, and finally, a 1994 conviction that sent Beckwith to prison for the rest of his life.
In reporting these articles, Mitchell went to the homes of these killers let them tell their stories. It is chilling. Beckwith, for example, denies murdering anyone but makes it grotesquely clear he does not mind that their Medgar Evers is dead.
Perhaps the finest example of shoe leather reporting involves the case of a killer whose alibi is that he was home watching wrestling.
Mitchell goes all the way back to the newspapers of 1963 to look up the TV schedules for the night in question — no wrestling.
Mitchell’s book is a great read. And a great reminder that it is never too late to seek justice.
William P. Warford’s column appears every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.