Mitchell on career, civil rights
Lauren Fiorelli talks to Lovejoy Visiting Journalist Jerry Mitchell about his work investigating civil rights cold cases for the Mississippi paper The Clarion-Ledger.
LF: How did you get into journalism?
JM: I’ve been in journalism since high school. I was editor of my high school paper…What interested me in journalism was the writing part of it. And then when I actually got into it, I found that I was a much better reporter than I was a writer...It’s interesting, I’m not one of those people who likes to work—well, I guess I like crossword puzzles to some extent, Scrabble and that kind of thing…but really what I like are mind puzzles. I’ve always been attracted to…figuring out something, being able to piece something together…the discovery, the mystery, running down the rabbit trail, finding things out…I’m always fascinated when I find out stuff that no one has reported or known…That’s what I’ve been my whole life, a journalist…I’ve always been attracted to the creative arts and my hobby…People say, “Do you have any hobbies?” and I say, “Yeah, I write.” Because that’s really literally what I do on the side as a hobby I write screenplays. My best friend from college and I write screenplays together and we just sold our first screenplay, so it’s pretty exciting…It’s about the Emmett Till case…I did a paper in grad school about press coverage of that case, so I was very familiar with the case…If you’re asking me how I got into [civil rights journalism]…there were two things that happened within a couple months. One, I saw the movie Mississippi Burning and I was horrified that none of the Klansmen involved in the cases had been prosecuted for murder. And then about a month later, I got my first glimpse–because of a tip–at the Mississippi Sovereignty Records…I got interested in that case. I got interested in the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. All these documents were sealed and I wanted them, so I got those documents eventually…I’m writing a book right now called Race Against Time and it’s all about the reopening of these cases. There have been 24 convictions so far.
LF: Is there a different feel to investigating these cold cases as opposed to current news?
JM: I’ve always loved history. I probably get that from my mom…[But] what we do as journalists is try and expose the truth, and that’s kind of our job. We’re not the judges, we’re not the jury, we’re not the prosecutors. A friend of mine who’s an investigative reporter used to have a button that said “I just catch ‘em, I don’t fry ‘em,” and that’s the way I kind of view my job. I expose [people].
LF: Is it your own curiosity about these cases and finding the truth that keeps you working at these investigations? Or is it more of a passion for social justice?
JM: I feel pretty strongly about the justice aspect of it. I think that’s what drives me. It has always kind of stuck in my craw when people got away with crime, corruption…I’ve written about other things, too…to be honest, murder is that one [crime] that has always really stuck in my craw. And it’s not just old cases. I’ve actually written on other cases, more current [cases]…That’s the beauty about journalism: you can write anything you want to. I totally take advantage of that…I’m a big fan of David Gray, who’s a singer-songwriter, and I’ve done a couple pieces [on him]…so I got to meet him and interview him…I’m a big music buff…I like to say I’m eclectic but I kind of like what I like.
LF: How do you deal with the danger involved in the investigative reporting you do, having received death threats from Klansmen?
JM: Charles McDew, who’s on campus today [April 25] and a big civil rights leader…He said something that I’ve thought myself but never voiced. He said, “You have to come to terms with your own mortality.” And that’s exactly it, in order to live fearlessly you have to come to terms with your own mortality…I mean, my faith certainly plays a role in that. It says don’t worry about those who can kill your body. So I don’t think this is it, [that] my life ends and I’m gone forever…but I think that [coming to terms with your own mortality] helps you live fearlessly…I think almost everything relates back to the playground…I always got the crap beaten out of me, so I’ve always reacted poorly to bullies. People try to bully me…it makes me more determined to do something…I’ve dealt with these Klan guys who obviously threaten me and the FBI’s investigated some of them…And I have regular people trying to threaten me, just [when I’m] working on regular stories, or intimidate me…and I just kind of laugh…I think in anything worth doing in life, you’re going to be opposed. And as Bob Woodward once said, “All great journalism is done in defiance of management.”…I think he’s right. When I started pursuing these stories [about civil rights cold cases], there was one editor who did not want me doing these stories. So, you’re always going to fight as a journalist, as a reporter, to get things. And it’s not just journalism. Anything you do in life–you want to the right thing, or you want to pursue something that you’re passionate about–just bat on. There are going to be people who are going to oppose you…pursue it [anyway]. It’s not necessary that you will always succeed, but the task of doing the right thing is important and eventually there will be payoff…in your life, as a person you’ll grow. Maybe just the experience of fighting gives you growth.
LF: What does it feel like to be often at odds with your state readership in Mississippi?
JM: Well, it’s been interesting. I started the blog…a little over a year ago, and I guess it’s been kind of eye-opening…in that sense, I hate the anonymity of the web. I wish that they [those who comment on his blog] had to put their real names [on their comments], just from the standpoint that I think it keeps the conversation more civil…In terms of being at odds with them, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s never really bothered me what people thought of me…It’s never bothered me if I was out of step. In fact, I kind of revel in some of that…You’ve been in journalism as long I’ve been…What’s really funny is actually you kind of revel in some of the criticisms you get. Like one guy wrote this letter to the editor…that [said] I should be “tarred, feathered, and run out of the state of Mississippi.”
LF: What was it like to see yourself portrayed in the movie Ghosts of Mississippi?
JM: That was really odd. I had nothing to do with the movie…but I’m portrayed in it. The two questions I’m usually asked about the film are: “Were you portrayed accurately?” and “Did you get a bunch of money?” And the quick answer to those questions is no and no. I didn’t make any money and nothing that my character said was anything that I said in real life…I would say it probably portrayed [the case] accurately from the prosecutor’s perspective…It’s an OK film. It’s not a great film by any stretch.
LF: You’ve had your blog on The Clarion-Ledger’s site for over a year. Do you see blogs as an integral part of the future of journalism?
JM: Here’s what happened. I came up with this idea for Gannett for having a civil rights site and I had a bunch of suggestions attached to it and one of them was: when I’m done with my book I’ll do a blog. I want to publicize my book, obviously, and that was my thinking. And they were just begging me, “Why don’t you just start your blog now?”…They wanted me to do it right away, so that’s why I started it…I like doing it okay…Some of the time I love having it, it’s a great place…I can put something that doesn’t really fit otherwise…Sometimes I can take something that I worked on and even make it personal…I guess I’m a throwback. [Blogging] kind of has its place [in the media] I guess. The thing is, unfortunately…[that] sometimes at the most they’re one source and sometimes not even that. And that’s what bothers the reporter part of me. They’re not validated in any way. It’s just because somebody on some website somewhere said something…It’s all this trafficking in rumor…For lack of a better term, it’s kind of like gossip…And I just don’t see people taking the time to report.
LF: Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists?
JM: Journalism is going to be around for a long time. I don’t think we’re going anywhere…There’s always going to be a need for people to gather news in some way. We have to have that…And slowly online [news sites are] beginning to monetize more…And once you can monetize online, it’s fine...you’re able to pay for that product and you can pay for reporters…The advice I would have [for aspiring journalists]…well, I would say this generally, even beyond reporting: do what you’re passionate about. I really believe that…Do what you’re passionate about and don’t look back. And you’ll be rewarded in ways you won’t even begin to understand, not even in pay. Forget the pay. When I first started in this business, I made barely more than minimum wage. But the rewards I’ve had have been immense…I really believe that journalism is one of the best professions in the world. You meet interesting people you would never meet otherwise. You get to experience all these things you would never experience otherwise. So, it’s just a wonderful field to go into.