Jerry Mitchell, Investigative Reporter for the
Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi
"Klan Buster" Portrayed in THE
GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI
Author of The Preacher and the Klansman
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
1:00 p.m. Campus Presentation – Room 1305
7:00 p.m. Public Presentation – College
Hosted by West Virginia University at
Parkersburg, Co-Sponsored by The Parkersburg News and
Jerry Mitchell Biography
been called "a loose cannon," "a pain in the a--" and "a white
traitor." Whatever he’s been called, Jerry Mitchell, 48, has never
given up in his quest to bring unpunished killers to justice,
prompting one colleague to call him “the South’s Simon Wiesenthal.”
1989, the investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in
Jackson, Miss., has unearthed documents, cajoled suspects and
witnesses, and quietly pursued evidence in the nation’s notorious
killings from the civil rights era.
so far has helped put five Klansmen behind bars: Byron De La
Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers;
Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, for ordering the fatal firebombing of
NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966; Bobby Cherry, for the 1963
bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls; Edgar Ray
Killen, for helping orchestrate the June 21, 1964, killings of
Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman; and James Ford
Seale for his role in the abductions and killings of two black
teenagers, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore.
work leading to Killen’s imprisonment, the Pulitzer Board in 2006
named Mitchell a Pulitzer Prize finalist, praising him “for his
relentless and masterly stories on the successful prosecution of a
man accused of orchestrating the killing of three civil rights
workers in 1964.”
2006, his work led a judge to throw out the wrongful conviction of
Clyde Kennard, who was fraudulently convicted in 1960 of stealing
chicken feed after he tried to enroll at an all-white university in
year he received the John Peter and Anna Catherine Zenger Award for
Freedom of the Press for his persistence in exposing these
His efforts have hardly
been popular. Some have complained bitterly in letters to the
editor. Others have cancelled their subscriptions. One angry missive
suggested that Mitchell be “tarred, feathered” and run out of the
state of Mississippi: “If your paper cannot begin to represent the
majority population of this state more civilly, then we do not need
Over the past 18 years,
Mitchell has endured his share of threats from Klansmen, one of whom
told him recently he expected to hear soon of the reporter’s
slaying: “That would be the best f---ing thing to ever happen in
this damn state for your sorry f---ing throat to be cut, mother f---er.”
Another Klansman told
Mitchell he had pictures of the reporter and his family and knew
where they lived before saying, “Did you think we were going to let
you go unscathed?”
work, Mitchell has received more than 20 national awards, including
the George Polk Award for Justice Reporting. Other national awards
include the Vernon Jarrett Award for Investigative Reporting, and
the Elijah Lovejoy Award, named after the nation’s first martyr to
freedom of the press.
awards he’s received recognize his work over the past 18 years,
including the Toni House Journalism Award and the Tom Renner Award
for Crime Reporting from Investigative Reporters and Editors, where
the judges said, “Mitchell's
crusading work is even more heroic because the cases he's
investigated were decades old but the threats against him were
Fairness & Accuracy in
Reporting recognized Mitchell’s two decades of dedication, selecting
his collection of work as one of 20 national stories that have made
a difference over the past two decades.
another career award, becoming
the youngest recipient ever of Columbia University’s John Chancellor
Award for Excellence in Journalism.
David Halberstam said
in helping bestow the Chancellor award, “Mitchell pursued these
stories after most people believed they belonged to history, and not
to journalism. But they did belong to journalism, because the truth
had never been told and justice had never been done.”
Mitchell as “the most distinguished reporter in the entire country,
an ornament to the profession and a model for any young person who
ponders whether or not to enter our business, a reflection of what
one reporter with a conscience can do. I simply marvel at him and
what he has done.”
In 1989, Mitchell was
a court reporter for The Clarion-Ledger when the film
Mississippi Burning inspired him to look into old civil rights
cases that many thought had long since turned cold. Through dogged
reporting, which cut across the grain of his paper and many of its
readers, he investigated leads long ignored or overlooked.
Since 1989, authorities
in Mississippi and six other states have reexamined 29 killings from
the civil rights era and made 30 arrests, leading to 23 convictions.
The Justice Department is now reexamining more than 100 slayings
from the era.
“It is fair to say
that without Mitchell's dogged and often courageous reporting … many
murders from the civil rights era would have remained unvindicated,
locked forever in the vaults of regional amnesia,” wrote Tribune
syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker.
On Jan. 25, 2007, the
same day Seale appeared before a federal judge on kidnapping
charges, Mitchell was interviewed on all three major networks.
In 2005, Newsweek
featured Mitchell as one of “America’s Best,” and CNN nominated him
as a “Person of the Day.” The day of Killen’s conviction, ABC
Evening News featured Mitchell in its “First Person” segment.
TODAY, The New York Times, American Journalism Review,
Mother Jones and others have profiled Mitchell, who joined The
Clarion-Ledger in 1986. He has appeared as an expert on all the
major networks, the Lehrer News Hour, CNN, National Public Radio and
he was portrayed in the Rob Reiner film, Ghosts of Mississippi.
He was featured in the Learning Channel documentary, Civil Rights
Martyrs, that aired in February 2000 and was a consultant for
the Discovery Channel documentary, Killed by the Klan, which
aired in 1999.
investigative work, Mitchell received the Sigma Delta Chi Award for
Public Service. "The rules of this contest require that a winner be
chosen based on the significance of the reporting; enterprise,
including courage in the face of opposing forces, and results,"
wrote Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the San Jose-Mercury News.
"By every measure, Jerry Mitchell should win the Sigma Delta Chi
Award for Public Service in journalism — and should win the
admiration of every citizen of Mississippi and of journalists
addition to the Sigma Delta Chi award, Mitchell has received the
Heywood Broun Award, the Sidney Hillman Award, the American Legion's
Fourth Estate Award, the National Association of Black Journalists'
Award for Enterprise Reporting, the Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Award
and the Inland Press Association Award.
Gannett honored him with the Outstanding Achievement by an
Individual Award, the Best Investigative Reporting Award, the Best
In-Depth Reporting Award and its highest honor — the William Ringle
Outstanding Achievement Career Award — making him the youngest
recipient ever to receive it. Two years later, he received the Best
Beat Reporting Award from Gannett for his continued work to shine
light on these dark crimes of the past, and in 2002, Gannett honored
Mitchell as one of its top 10 journalists in the company over the
past quarter century. In 2006, Mitchell received the Outstanding
Achievement by an Individual Award a second time, this time for work
leading to Killen’s conviction. The judges called his stories “the
work of a generation. People said to let it go. But Jerry Mitchell
never gave up.”
have recognized Mitchell’s work. In 2000, he received the Silver Em
Award from the University of Mississippi, where he was called "a
true hero of contemporary American journalism." In 2002, editors
Judith and William Serrin featured his work in their anthology of
the nation’s best journalism over the past three centuries,
Muckraking! The Journalism That Changed America.
October 1998, Mitchell was recognized along with three other
journalists at the Kennedy Center in Washington. ABC's Chris Wallace
told those gathered for the Anti-Defamation League event, "Jerry
Mitchell isn't comfortable being called a hero, or being portrayed
as one in the film, Ghosts of Mississippi. It is difficult,
however, to find a better word than 'hero' to describe Jerry
Mitchell. Today, justice — long delayed — has been served, and Sam
Bowers and Byron De La Beckwith grow old in jail."
there's more to Mitchell than just hard-hitting reporting. His
10-chapter narrative, “Genetic Disaster,” described his family’s
often losing battle against a rare genetic ailment and his journey
to find out if he had the deadly disease. He received the Associated
Press' Outstanding Writing Award for his 13-chapter narrative,
The Preacher and the Klansman, which also received a Columbia
Journalism School Citation for Coverage of Race & Ethnicity.
Thousands have been touched by this story of how a
preacher-turned-civil-rights-activist became friends with a former
Ku Klux Klan terrorist, a true story of reconciliation. One reader
wrote: "What a wonderful series, not only because of the heroic
reporting and beautiful writing, but because it is at its core, the
embodiment of hope."
addition to his writing, Mitchell is an inspiring speaker. In 2003,
he was a featured speaker at the Ford Foundation’s conference in New
York City on “Journalism and Justice.” In June 2005, he served as
the commencement speaker for more than 10,000 graduates at Queens
College, where Andy Goodman once attended. And in October 2005, he
spoke at the dedication of the National Civil Rights Memorial Center
in Montgomery, Alabama — an event attended by thousands. He
regularly speaks about his stories and race relations at
universities across the United States, from the sunny hills of
Malibu to the snow belt of Syracuse.
Mitchell received his master’s in journalism from Ohio State
University, and in 2006, he received an honorary doctorate from
Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He lives in Mississippi with his
wife. They have two children.