Mitchell speaks on Klan murder cases
The winner of the 2006 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award, Jerry Mitchell, returned to the Hill this week. On Monday, April 25, he delivering a lecture entitled “Tales of Justice and Reconciliation in Mississippi: A reporter’s journey into the Klan and unpunished killings from the civil rights era.” Mitchell presented a fascinating account of his various investigative endeavors as a reporter.
An investigative reporter for Jackson, Mississippi’s The Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell gained national recognition for his investigations of the brutal killings committed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) during the civil rights era. The information that Mitchell published contributed to the convictions of several members of the KKK for murders they committed. The most prominent of these cases were those of Byron De La Beckwith, Sam Bowers, Bobby Cherry and Edgar Ray Killen.
A committed investigator, Mitchell has received numerous awards, including a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize and, most recently, the “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.
During his talk, Mitchell described his experiences with the four KKK members and recounted each case, detailing his paths of inquiry, reflecting upon decisive interviews and remembering astonishing courtroom experiences.
Mitchell opened his talk by stating, “If someone tells me I can’t have something, I want it a million times worse.” His actions as a reporter make it obvious that he is committed to pursuing and discovering the truth. As Mitchell said, “Even if your mama tells you she loves you, you check it out.” True to this rule of journalism, Mitchell proved in his talk that he truly did check all of the facts, and his various accounts reiterated that the truth can be found in some of the least expected places.
As a self identified white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Mitchell noted that this background was an invaluable asset in facilitating interviews with members of the KKK. While narrating these interviews and the shocking insights and confessions that often resulted from them, Mitchell noted, “I am not making fun of [the trials], I am just telling what happened.” Certainly, Mitchell’s resourceful manipulations during his inquisitions allowed him to draw the truth out from the most unlikely of sources. Mitchell described cases in which the perpetrators, overconfident in their purported innocence, ultimately implicated themselves and their cohorts.
Mitchell conveyed his commitment to administering justice to these criminals, many of whom are now well into their senior years. “I sometimes have people I know say ‘Why don’t you leave them alone?’” he said. “But they are just young killers who happen to get old.”
On various occasions, angry Klan members and white supremacists threatened Mitchell, but none have taken direct action on his life. Despite the gravity of his work, Mitchell maintains an optimistic spirit, inserting humorous remarks concerning his approach to journalism.
Mitchell closed his talk by stating that “journalism is the best, most rewarding profession because you can change the world.” After his talk, Mitchell answered the audience’s questions, offering deeper insights and further emphasizing his role in dealing out justice to those who most deserve it.