April 26, 2011

Journalist who took on the Klan speaks at Colby

By Scott Monroe smonroe@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- Former Ku Klux Klansman Billy Roy Pitts ran into the widow and her children, after testifying in a case that led to the conviction of the man who had ordered the killing of their father, Vernon Dahmer, in 1966.

click image to enlarge

Jerry Mitchell, 52, an investigative journalist at the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Miss. lectured at Colby College on Monday night. Mitchell is currently working on a book on unpublished killings of the civil rights-era titled, "Race Against Time."

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Klan convictions

Jerry Mitchell began making news out of history in 1989.

He has pursued evidence in notorious killings from the civil rights era, earning him numerous journalism awards for helping put four Ku Klux Klansmen in jail.

Among the honors was Colby College’s 2006 Lovejoy Award. It is given annually in memory of 1826 Colby graduate Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who died defending his printing press against a pro-slavery mob.

But Mitchell’s efforts haven’t been universally popular. His reporting has angered some readers and prompted death threats, some of which the FBI is investigating.

Since 1989, authorities in Mississippi and six other states have re-examined 29 killings from the civil rights era, leading to 23 convictions. The Justice Department is now re-examining dozens of other slayings from the era.

Mitchell’s reporting helped lead to the convictions of the following four Klansmen, three of whom have since died:

Byron De La Beckwith, for the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Beckwith, who was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison, died at age 80 in 2001.

Samuel H. Bowers, the imperial wizard of a Ku Klux Klan faction, for ordering the fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966. Bowers was found guilty in 1998 and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2006 at age 82.

Bobby Frank Cherry, a Klan leader, for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls. Cherry was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2004 at age 74.

Edgar Ray Killen, for helping organize the killings of three civil rights workers in 1964, a case that was popularized by the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.” In 2005, Killen was found guilty of manslaughter in their deaths and was sentenced to 20 years on each count, to run consecutively. Killen is appealing his conviction and earlier this month his attorneys subpoenaed FBI files that are in the possession of the Clarion-Ledger.

Source: www.clarionledger.com and staff research

Pitts turned and asked for forgiveness for his part in the killing.

The African American woman said she forgave him.

She began to cry. And so did the Dahmer children, then Pitts, and then the reporter covering the case, Jerry Mitchell.

"And isn't that what God does for others: forgive people who have no business being forgiven? Isn't that what redemption is about?" Mitchell said.

Such displays of racial reconciliation has been among the most amazing sights to behold, he said.

"There have been 24 convictions in these cases so far," he said. "It's a matter of faith, with me. I believe God's hand has been involved in these cases."

Mitchell's comments came in front of about 70 people Monday night during a lecture he delivered at Colby College, "Tales of Justice and Reconciliation in Mississippi: A reporter's journey into the Klan and unpunished killings from the Civil Rights Era."

Mitchell, 52, is an investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Miss. He was Colby College's 2006 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award recipient for his investigative reporting and was also given an honorary doctorate from Colby.

Mitchell's visit to campus was sponsored by Colby's Goldfarb Center and is part of the Lovejoy Journalist-in-Residence, a three-year program at the college.

Mitchell's reporting has won him more than 30 national awards and helped authorities convict four Klansmen linked to killings in the 1960s. His reporting has also angered readers and resulted in death threats.

But Mitchell said he has been motivated by the desire to seek justice for the victims and families. It was no great secret who was behind many of the Civil Rights era killings in Mississippi, he said, but those responsible were able to elude culpability.

During his talk at Colby, Mitchell recounted how he got involved in his investigative work. It began with a simple desire.

"If you're like me, when somebody tells me I can't have something, I want it, like, a million times worse," he said.

So it went with the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, an organization from the 1960s that Mitchell likened to "Nazi Germany" because it had a propaganda arm and a spying arm. The organization existed until 1973 and the Legislature had decided to seal all of its records until 2027.

Mitchell went about seeking the commission's records, developing informed sources and getting the documents piece by piece, until he had all 2,400 pages in 1989.

That work led to a story published Oct. 1, 1989, in which the records showed the organization had secretly helped get Byron De La Beckwith, a Klansman, acquittedd in the 1963assassinationon of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. There was no evidence tying Beckwith to the killing, but Evers's widow "believed and prayed and some amazing things happened."

Prosecutors later found the murder weapon in a relative's closet.

Mitchell noted the case was the loose basis for the movie "Ghosts of Mississippi," in which James Woods played Beckwith, who was "more racist" than was portrayed.

Mitchell went to interview Beckwith for his story and after several hours of talking, Beckwith warned Mitchell that if he wrote a negative story, "God will punish you. And if God does not do it correctly, several individuals will do it for him."

Beckwith was convicted Feb. 5, 1994, almost 30 years to the day when he was tried and acquitted in the '60s.

Mitchell recounted the details of three other cases in which his investigate reporting also led Klansmen being convicted.

There was also Samuel Bowers, the imperial wizard of a Klan faction, who ordered the fatal fire-bombing of Dahmer; Bobby Cherry, who helped in the bombing of a Birmingham church in which four girls were killed; and Edgar Ray Allen, who helped organize the killings of three civil rights workers.

Mitchell recounted how he interviewed the Klansmen during his reporting, uncovered damning video footage and transcripts, and took some of them out to dinner for catfish or at a barbeque.

By the time these men were brought back to trail decades later, they were old - some wheelchair bound and hooked to oxygen tanks.

Mitchell said some people ask him, "Why don't you leave these kindly old guys alone?"

"The thing they don't think about is these are young killers who happened to get old," Mitchell said.

He mentioned another case in which three African Americans were kidnapped while hitch-hiking, beaten to death, and then dumped in a river.

"If somebody does something like that," Mitchell said, "don't they deserve to be punished?"

Scott Monroe - 861-9239

smonroe@centralmaine.com

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