Jerry Mitchell remembers what so many others want to forget. For more than three decades, he worked as an investigative reporter for The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. During that time, his dogged reporting helped put four Klansmen in jail after they had eluded justice year after year for their heinous crimes in the 1960s.
Mitchell tells this story of justice delayed and finally done in his new book, Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, published by Simon & Schuster. Mitchell captures so many of the complexities and contradictions of the Deep South. For example, he writes this: “This was Mississippi, a place where some of the nation’s poorest people live on some of the world’s richest soil, a place with the nation’s highest illiteracy and some of the world’s greatest writers,” and I might add as a resident of Alabama next door, a place also known for being first in religion and last in just about everything else. A place like much of the South, where the churches are full and where racism has so long flourished alongside.
Mitchell joined me on Gospelbound to discuss what compelled him to seek justice, the Christian pretensions of the Ku Klux Klan, and whether the gospel can finally bring healing to this beautiful and broken land.
This episode of Gospelbound is brought to you by Southeastern Seminary. In a changing ministry landscape, Southeastern’s four-year master of divinity and master of business administration program was built on a foundation of rigorous theological training and practical vocational training. Learn more at sebts.edu.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: Jerry Mitchell remembers what so many others want to forget. For more than three decades, he worked as an investigative reporter for The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. During that time his dogged reporting helped put four Klansmen in jail after they had eluded justice year after year for their heinous crimes in the 1960s. Mitchell tells this story of justice delayed and finally done in his new book, Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, published by Simon & Schuster. Mitchell captures so many of the complexities and contradictions of the Deep South. For example he writes this: “This was Mississippi, a place where some of the nation’s poorest people live on some of the world’s richest soil, a place with the nation’s highest illiteracy and some of the world’s greatest writers,” and I might add as a resident of Alabama next door, a place also known for being first in religion and last in just about everything else. A place like much of the South where the churches are full and where racism has so long flourished alongside.
Collin Hansen: Mitchell joins me on Gospelbound to discuss what compelled him to seek justice, the Christian pretensions of the Ku Klux Klan, and whether the gospel can finally bring healing to this beautiful and broken land. Thank you for joining me Jerry.
Jerry Mitchell: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Collin Hansen: Well Jerry, what compelled you to devote your life to these stories at a time when so many other white Southerners just wanted to forget?
Jerry Mitchell: I think the injustices. I saw the movie Mississippi Burning, which is about the three civil-rights workers who were … Those three young men, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney and Andy Goodman who were brutally killed by the Klan and their bodies buried 15 feet down on an earthen dam. Weren’t found for 44 days. None of the Klansmen, more than 20 Klansmen involved, none of them had ever been prosecuted for murder and that was something I just couldn’t wrap my head around.
Collin Hansen: Yet so many other people made peace with that or just ignored it. What made you different there?
Jerry Mitchell: Well I think I’m from a different generation. I’m also I guess a tiny bit of an outsider, I’m from the South but I wasn’t from Mississippi, but it just shocked me. It just shocked me. That’s all I can say, and this was ’89, this is 25 years later obviously after the murders take place and yeah. I just couldn’t believe, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that these guys have gotten away with murder.
Collin Hansen: Were you intentional in the book of drawing so much attention to the Ku Klux Klan’s Christian pretensions? It’s a consistent theme in the book, and I think Delmar Dennis, the Klan informant pictured with a white hood in one hand and a Bible in the other, or Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard who taught Sunday school each week at his Baptist church in Laurel, Mississippi, or Baptist preacher and KKK member Edgar Ray Killen living a mile away from where those murders happened in Mississippi and at the same time displaying the Ten Commandments in his front yard including thou shalt not murder.
Jerry Mitchell: I had to include that detail.
Collin Hansen: Was that something you were trying to draw attention to in the book?
Jerry Mitchell: Well you know, I don’t know that I did it on purpose, but it was a conscious thing in my mind, the contradictions. I guess what I was trying to point out is the contradictions in that in my mind of having the Ten Commandments on display in your lawn and being guilty of murder. That’s kind of fascinating. Of course when he said he didn’t believe in murder, he believed in self-defense, that’s what Edgar Ray Killen told me so I thought that was kind of fascinating.
Collin Hansen: Self-defense? As in defending his way of life I suppose?
Jerry Mitchell: Exactly. Kind of Bowers, Sam Bowers, the head of the Klan talked about that as well.
Collin Hansen: Did you see those appeals to Christianity, some of the rationales that they would give, as theological or spiritual? You talked about the Christian Identity movement quite a bit in the book. Do you see those as sincere or as merely manipulative? Some kind of veneer to give some kind of exalted self-importance?
Jerry Mitchell: Well, the Christian Identity is pretty vile. It’s horribly racist, I mean it’s not mainstream at all. It kind of came out of what we would call Anglo-Israelism, this belief that the ten European nations are part of the lost tribes of Israel and it’s just a … Anyway, but it developed into this horribly kind of racist religion so yeah. They use the Bible to kind of justify this. I talk a little bit about that, where they supposedly get all this from. It’s pretty awful stuff.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, it is easily beyond the pale. I wonder if the extreme examples, do they maybe distract our attention in some ways? I mean these are of course the people who committed the worst murders, there’s no doubt about that, and yet they acted within an environment of plenty of other people who believed the Bible and didn’t believe those things, yet were more than willing to cover up.
Jerry Mitchell: Yeah, no, you’re right, or to be silent or to not talk or yeah, whatever it was, cover up for them, so yeah, and police officers being involved in the Klan. The list kind of goes on and on of people that did a lot of things in the name of Christianity and obviously those of us who consider ourselves Christian are pretty horrified by it, at least I would hope so.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, and hopefully more increasingly with time, and yet I do think one of the lessons I’m often drawn to is it seems obvious to see those problems, and yet I wonder how many of us would have really said something different if our own lives were at risk.
Jerry Mitchell: Oh yeah, I think that’s accurate and I think someone … Mississippi was called at the time the closed society, whose idea was if you were white and spoke out much less African American, you would be ostracized, you would be … Many were basically run out of the state, African American and white, for standing up for … Basically allowing all citizens to be equal.
Collin Hansen: A number of … Including the civil-rights workers too were white and then of course also James Reeb here in Alabama in Selma.
Jerry Mitchell: Yeah exactly, exactly.
Collin Hansen: So it’s not as if … Of course many of those were considered “outsiders” and so they would face even more problems but I think with the … I don’t know if you have listened to the White Lies podcast that NPR died about Reeb’s murder –
Jerry Mitchell: Yeah, I know those guys, they came over and interviewed me, so.
Collin Hansen: I figured you guys must be connected given your overlapping interest and given your role in using journalism to expose this. Did you have any thoughts about that podcast? Seems like they did some of the similar things that you did, they unearthed some things that law enforcement had missed.
Jerry Mitchell: Yeah, exactly, and I think law enforcement didn’t apparently really want to solve the case. I mean that’s kind of what happened over and over again. I mean they went to trial and nothing happened, or the guys were acquitted or things like that. It’s too bad. It’s too bad. Over and over again, that kind of was the MO that played out in the South, that these … Basically, white men were allowed to kill African Americans over and over again and get away with it essentially.
Collin Hansen: Right. Let’s talk about one of those and probably really kind of the focus in the book, Byron De La Beckwith. Killed of course Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, was sure, in the interviews that you did with him … That’s one of the things people when they pick up your book is they get to go with you into these places where your wife is telling you don’t you dare go to these places and I got to say, it sounded scary to me, but anyway … He’s completely sure that God is on his side. In fact he goes so far as to warn you of curses if you would write against him, but you write that of course you saw God working through your own reporting and your praying, that justice would be done. I thought of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, with both sides claiming God there. Of course like Lincoln, I’m thinking how can you invoke God’s blessing on hatred and murder but I’m wondering were there ever times when your own faith was shaken or you just wondered, when you’re faced with this kind of evil even sitting across the table. How do you process that as Christian? How are you thinking about that as a man of faith?
Jerry Mitchell: Yeah, it’s incredible, for people to invoke Christianity and to carry out such awful evil. I mean it’s historic unfortunately as well, because obviously Christianity teaches peace and non-violence and all those things. It’s horrifying, and it’s horrifying to be face to face with it, but in terms of my faith and doubt and all that kind of stuff, there’s kind of a point in the book where in the story, where it looks like nothing’s going to happen with the killings of the three civil-rights workers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, so I literally went out and … Well first, I remembered there was a scripture from Jeremiah that says, “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” I just had come across that verse and I was like, “I need to pray about this, really, really pray about this.” Because I know God loves justice and so it just struck me …
Jerry Mitchell: So I put that Scripture on my computer, reminding me of that scripture about I’m the Lord, the God of all mankind, is anything too hard for me, I posted that on my computer, for my wallpaper on my computer, I posted the reward poster with the pictures of the three civil-rights workers just as a reminder, don’t forget about us. Then I prayed obviously for justice and yeah. It happened actually. Not like in the movie.
Collin Hansen: Right. The movie is part of as you said here right away, it is part of your interest in this topic and during that period of time we had several movies produced about these incidents. What sort of a role did you see generally of … You talk about reminders. That’s everything Alabama and Mississippi have been trying to do is not to remind themselves.
Jerry Mitchell: I think it’s accurate. I think it’s accurate, and I’d say America as a whole really –
Collin Hansen: Very true.
Jerry Mitchell: I think it’s true of America as a whole.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, so what role did the movies play in helping to bring some of these things back into the conscience?
Jerry Mitchell: Well it brought it into my conscience. If it hadn’t been for the movie Mississippi Burning I wouldn’t have been there, and I wouldn’t have been there with the FBI agents and none of this would … At least my journey wouldn’t have happened. Maybe it would would have happened –
Collin Hansen: In the actual screening, right? When you were there –
Jerry Mitchell: Yeah, I went to a press screening. I went to a press screening, it was actually a press screening, it wasn’t like for the public. It was for the press, and I was there and two FBI agents happened to be there and there was a journalist who covered the case and so literally as I kind of thought of them at the time, I was 29, these three old men, now I’m old, started explaining all this to me and I didn’t really understand any of it. I knew nothing, like this was not on my radar at all. Like I didn’t know anything about the killings, any of this. This was all news to me.
Collin Hansen: Now one of the things that’s most disturbing reading through the book is that … I’ll get to this in the end, there is at least one case where there is remorse and there is change. You don’t talk much about the case of Tommy Tarrants though he’s another person who dramatically changed from this time period –
Jerry Mitchell: I did a whole narrative piece before this book for the newspaper, it was a serial narrative called The Preacher and a Klansman, and it was about John Perkins who is a … You know John, an African-American preacher who got involved in the civil-rights movement and Tommy Tarrants, you probably know his story, Klansman who was involved in … He was involved in a lot of Klan violence and of course came to faith.
Collin Hansen: Right. Yeah, I’ve done interviews with him as well and just a fascinating story. So there are cases of transformation and remorse and I’ll get to one of those later, but not always, and maybe even not usually.
Jerry Mitchell: The vast majority of the time no, so.
Collin Hansen: How do you process that? Does it surprise you when you’re talking with Byron De La Beckwith and to the end, just no remorse, no repentance.
Jerry Mitchell: No, none. I think he felt he did the right thing. It was kind of like … Even when you say thou shalt not kill, he would say, “Well actually thou shalt not do no murder,” or something, to try to make a theological distinction on those kinds of things, so it’s really fascinating, his mindset. I don’t think any of these guys were really … Other than the other one you were mentioning … We can talk about it later.
Collin Hansen: Right, right. Well we might as well jump in right there now and –
Jerry Mitchell: Okay, we’ll talk about it now.
Collin Hansen: Talk about Billy Roy Pitts. So tell us a little bit about his story. You can go ahead and narrate some of that.
Jerry Mitchell: Vernon Dahmer was a farmer, businessman, NAACP leader. He believed that all Americans should truly have the right to vote. The Klan didn’t like that, attacked him and his family in the middle of the night on January 10, 1966. The Klan set their house on fire, began firing their guns into the house. Vernon Dahmer woke up, grabbed his shotgun, ran to the front of the house, began firing back at the Klansmen so his family could escape safely out of the back window, but unfortunately the flames of the fire seared his lungs and he died later that day.
Jerry Mitchell: A few weeks later the mail came, it’s a voter registration card. He fought his whole life for the right of all Americans to be able to vote but had never been able to cast a ballot himself. So Sam Bowers, the head of the Klan in Mississippi White Knights, was the one who ordered that, and he had skated, he had not been convicted in that case. Billy Roy Pitts was involved in that killing, dropped his gun, guy caught it, pleaded guilty to murder, he got a life sentence for that plea guilty to federal charges and got five years for that.
Jerry Mitchell: Basically I found out that Pitts had never served his life sentence essentially, which sounds incredible, but it’s true that he had never actually served a day of his life’s sentence and so I tracked him down, talked to him, interviewed him and anyway, the trial took place and Sam Bowers was convicted, and Billy Roy Pitts testified against him during that trial. And then after the trial was over with and Bowers was convicted and sent to life in prison, this was in ’98 when this happened. Not too long after that, Pitts testified in a hearing of what he did. He basically walked to the back of the courtroom and ran into Ellie Dahmer, the widow of Vernon Dahmer, and he apologized to her for killing her husband and asked her to forgive him and she forgave him and she began to cry and he began to cry and there’s such a lesson in that, isn’t there, for us? Isn’t that kind of what God does for us, forgives us when we have no business being forgiven and … Isn’t that kind of what redemption is all about, trying to make things right? Even when they’ve gone so terribly wrong.
Collin Hansen: I’ve focused a lot and what I was drawn to in so many cases with the book were these misuses and abuses of Christianity and of faith and trying to understand how the more thoroughly Christianized a place could get seemingly the worse it would get.
Jerry Mitchell: Well because it’s a façade of Christianity and not the real thing unfortunately. I mean how could you allow people to be mistreated on such a level? Treated less than human, let’s just be real honest about it.
Collin Hansen: Right.
Jerry Mitchell: I think that’s at the root of what the problem is. From a faith perspective, looking to Scripture, you would say we’re not really reading this thing. We’re not really reading what it says, because justice is not just about what happens in the courtroom, it’s about how we treat each other, how we treat the least of these, right? It’s how do we treat the oppressed, how do we treat the afflicted, how do we treat the poor? That’s kind of a common theme, isn’t it? Throughout Scripture.
Collin Hansen: Well and even worse sometimes I wonder if we are reading it, we’re just ignoring it or we’re finding ways to be able to justify, like you said, thou shall not kill. Well that means just certain this or that or the other.
Jerry Mitchell: Right, exactly.
Collin Hansen: There are always ways we can rationalize away sin if we’re motivated to do so. That’s just one of the things that I –
Jerry Mitchell: Exactly. I mean it happens still to this day. I mean people rationalize whatever it is.
Collin Hansen: It does, yeah. That’s why the book … It feels so contemporary in many ways because as much as we would like to imagine that all of this is confined to the 1960s and some of it of course is, we don’t see the same level of Klan violence in the same ways, we’ve exchanged some of those shotguns for Tiki torches so I suppose that’s improvement there.
Jerry Mitchell: You’re still having violence though. You’re still having the increase lately in white nationalism and white supremacy and violence.
Collin Hansen: You still have police brutality in certain cases so yeah, there’s definitely –
Jerry Mitchell: We have had Charleston where Dylann Roof walked in in Charleston and killed the nine beautiful people and you know … Two years ago in Pittsburgh, in the synagogue, where he killed 11 people because he was trying to eliminate the Jews and then a year ago in El Paso, the guy said he was trying to stop an invasion of the United States. It’s all connected up to … This is the way I think about it. It’s all connected up to how do we regard others? It does definitely relate to Scripture. To think about, apart from Scripture, think about it from this perspective. Do we make people less than? Is there a certain group of people, are a certain people that hold political views or whatever they are, I mean it doesn’t have to be political views, but any view, do we regard them of a particular race, a particular group, or whatever, as less than in some way? What happens is our rhetoric, if I’m saying about some group or some person they’re a monster for example. Well then if I go kill that person or I try to destroy them figuratively let’s say, then I’m justified, right? Because I’m doing society a favor if I’m taking out a monster, right?
Collin Hansen: Yeah. What reminds me of the original justification for the Ku Klux Klan, the context of Reconstruction, the idea we’re simply doing this to be able to protect people, to restore order.
Jerry Mitchell: Exactly.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, you’re of course right that there are all these examples of the similar kinds of violence that persist. I think I must have just been thinking so specifically about Alabama and Mississippi and their historic roles there but really you’re exactly right. You’re pointing out how this has spread and it’s an American problem, not a Southern problem. Deep South problem.
Jerry Mitchell: … always say about Mississippi and you can say about Alabama too is it’s so easy for the rest of the nation to see … I’m not trying to beat everybody else up, are we getting Mississippi and Alabama off the hook, not at all. But what I think is they need to see Mississippi as a mirror. We are a mirror of America. We are not just something to point out and say, “Oh look how terrible Mississippi is.” I think if all people do is see that and point, they miss the point. Because the point is this is a mirror for all of us I think in America, and a burden I think that all of us carry as a nation because it is a historical burden this nation carries. It dates back to the creation of the Constitution. It’s embedded in the Constitution, et cetera.
Collin Hansen: Right. Yeah, Robert Penn Warren talks about this and how the Civil War, sort of things diverge there, it became this sort of merit of righteousness for the North and this great shame for the South but it obscured what they shared in common in terms of their responsibility, just as you described right there and sort of let the North off the hook as if they couldn’t do these things when of course we remember King said the most notorious racist city he experienced was Chicago.
Jerry Mitchell: Exactly.
Collin Hansen: Which he seems to have barely avoided a full-blown police-led riot toward the end of his life.
Collin Hansen: Right, so … A couple more questions here. Do you notice any difference in how successive generations view these years, these years you wrote about in the 1960s or perhaps want to deal with directly, with the legacy?
Jerry Mitchell: That’s an interesting question. My sense is when you talk about this particular history is that a lot of people don’t know it. That’s the reaction I’ve gotten to my book, which has kind of been fascinating is a certain number in reading the book have said to me, “I never knew all that happened.” Like people, including someone that I talked to who is a veteran of the civil-rights movement, they said, “Oh. I didn’t know all that happened.” I think it’s just a … The civil-rights movement has unfortunately gotten short-handed into Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King stood up, and African Americans got their rights. There’s so much more to that, there were so many ordinary people as we might say with extraordinary courage, who stood up and local people whose names aren’t even known, and I think it’s a story we need to know, and I’m hoping my book in essence helps in that, helping … Not that it’s a be-all and end-all of all this information, but people can begin to learn.
Collin Hansen: My own experience, Jerry, has been for the last several years but especially in the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching civil-rights movement in Birmingham and especially to younger people, millennial generation and younger, and I didn’t know how people were going to respond and the response has been overwhelmingly positive in a sense of we need to know this, we had no idea. I’m pointing to literal streets, blocks away, saying, “Hey, do you know what happened here? Do you know what happened here?” It’s kind of shocking but I’ve learned not to assume, especially with younger people, not to assume hostility, but to assume ignorance.
Jerry Mitchell: I think that’s accurate. That’s what I’ve found in talking to students a lot of times, that they’re … Just they don’t know it. I mean I talk to student groups all the time.
Collin Hansen: Right. They don’t know in part because their parents and grandparents didn’t want them to know about it and didn’t tell them about it and wanted to forget. That’s kind of the theme that I keep popping up with is you refuse to ignore or forget things that everybody else … I mean many other people wanted to forget
Jerry Mitchell: Even adults too. On my Facebook page and Twitter page, I post this thing called Today In Civil Rights History, and it’s amazing how many people, both black and white say I never knew this, they never taught me this in school.
Jerry Mitchell: It’s a history we don’t talk about and don’t want to talk about, and yet there’s something freeing about the truth, isn’t there?
Collin Hansen: Yeah, that might even be a biblical phrase right there. One of the … Your book about is justice delayed, but of course, justice finally delivered. The scene at Beckwith’s conviction feels to me like a foretaste of judgment day and so interesting the jurors had prayed together. One of them even cited an invisible presence that came over them. I’m wondering for you Jerry, what was the most satisfying moment for you, when you finally saw justice done?
Jerry Mitchell: Wow. Well you know, I think it was satisfying. That was the most moving emotionally I think of all of them, just because it never had … This was a new experience to me. So yeah, that was probably the most moving moment was seeing that and not thinking it might happen because it looked like the jury might hang up again like it did back in ’64 and then all that happened. It was just … It did, it felt very divine, I mean the whole thing, the whole thing.
Collin Hansen: One last question, again I’ve been talking with Jerry Mitchell about his book Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era. Your longtime employer, The Clarion Ledger, I think we can safely say did not distinguish itself for good in the 1960s?
Jerry Mitchell: That would be … How about it was a horrible racist newspaper?
Collin Hansen: The headlines, the problem is Jerry, I have to sell it short here because I can’t repeat the headlines.
Jerry Mitchell: I know, they’re awful.
Collin Hansen: From the March on Washington in 1963, which you include in here. Just absolutely horrible.
Jerry Mitchell: I could have included worse, but that would have actually been worse than a lot of what I included.
Collin Hansen: Oh goodness, no, it’s a family podcast here, Jerry. When did … I’ve been looking for turning points, maybe around the movies, maybe when your generation is coming into their own professionally and they can turn their attention back to this. I’m looking for a turning point when perhaps The Clarion Ledger’s leaders knew they needed to redeem themselves from this.
Jerry Mitchell: I think it kind of forced us to do that. I know when I got those Sovereignty Commission records and this kind of a segregation spy agency records that showed our own newspaper had been very much a part of all of the problem and as I told them, I mean, “Hey, we need to write this story, otherwise somebody else is.” So they let me to their credit and basically did a story about how we had killed stories and written racist propaganda for the Sovereignty Commission essentially, helping out the Sovereignty Commission. That ran, ran in The Clarion Ledger.
Collin Hansen: That’s one of the first things you realized in this whole process was this went to the top of the state.
Jerry Mitchell: Absolutely. There was no question about that part.
Collin Hansen: Well, it is I find … I agree, the truth sets us free, and I believe the time is right for us to really own up to this truth and at least start with knowing it.
Jerry Mitchell: Exactly.
Collin Hansen: It’s what Jerry Mitchell does in Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era. Jerry, thank you for your years of service to God and to the church and to our public, especially through your gifting in journalism. Thanks Jerry.
Jerry Mitchell: Well thanks Collin, and I just want to thank you for having me and God was at work in all of this, I really believe that, as a matter of faith with me, but I really believe that.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, amen. Thanks Jerry.
Jerry Mitchell: Thanks.