When performing their craft well, journalists comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Jerry Mitchell, a newspaper reporter in Jackson, Miss., since 1986, has fulfilled that mission — with the twist that both the afflicted individuals he helped and the comfortable individuals he investigated constitute an unusual pairing.
The afflicted: families of women, men and children murdered in the 1960s by white supremacists, often members of the Ku Klux Klan. The comfortable: the killers, many of whom had never served prison time.
Mitchell explains how he gradually realized that some of the most renowned race-based murders occurring in the Deep South had, year by year, become unsolved cold cases. Law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges — however well intentioned — had failed in their pursuit for justice. As a journalist, Mitchell lacked subpoena power, the power to file criminal charges, the power to argue for convictions in front of a judge and jury. But he believed his information-gathering skills, combined with persistence and passion, could stimulate police, prosecutors and judges to reopen murders relegated to the cold case files.
Mitchell began with the highly publicized triple murder of youthful voting-rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964 near Philadelphia, Miss. His investigation of that case opens the book, and a few hundred pages later closes the book.
The second cold case murder included by Mitchell focuses on the assassination of high-profile civil rights activist Medgar Evers at his Jackson home in 1963.
Next, Mitchell shares how and why he chose to reopen the cold case of murder victim Vernon Dahmer Sr. Dahmer and his family, civic-minded individuals, pushed for the right to vote as adult black citizens. Ku Klux Klan members decided to discourage all blacks by assassinating Dahmer at his rural home near Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1966.
For the fourth case, Mitchell chose an investigation in Birmingham, Ala. A bomb planted at a Baptist church there in 1963 killed four black girls.
Against massive resistance, how did a journalist with almost no prior knowledge of the murders gather enough new evidence to persuade governmental authorities to risk their careers by reopening unsatisfying investigations? No brief answer to that question fits the facts of all four cases. But the varying answers do include a few common denominators:
• Mitchell’s reliance on naiveté as an asset. Veterans of the cases had bought into the conventional wisdom that white supremacist walls of silence protecting murderers could never be breached two decades later. Mitchell’s naiveté led him to wonder, “Why not?”
• Mitchell’s persistence, with support from his newsroom editors at the Clarion Ledger.
• Mitchell’s skills as an interviewer approaching hostile strangers, bolstered by his skills related to locating and interpreting court-related documents.
In his book, Mitchell never portrays himself as a hero. Readers, however, might correctly conclude that “hero” is an appropriate word.
Steve Weinberg began his career as an investigative journalist in 1969.
Race Against Time
By: Jerry Mitchell.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 421 pages, $28.