Special report: Convicting klansmen in Mississippi

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JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) –  This week marks an important part of Mississippi history. It’s the 25th anniversary since Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of murdering civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

That conviction would lead to a series of convictions that would put Klansmen behind bars.

At the center of it all is one investigative reporter, Jerry Mitchell, who spent decades at the Clarion-Ledger. 

We talked to Mitchell about why he got involved in the cases. 

Mitchell doesn’t like it when someone tells him he can’t have something. And that’s exactly what happened when he began looking into what happened to Medgar Evers.

He found that there was a segregation spy agency, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, with 132-thousand pages of records that were sealed for 50 years.

“I began to develop sources who had access to the files and began to leak me the files and what they showed was at the same time Mississippi was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers this other arm of the state, the Sovereignty Commission, was secretly seeking a defense trying to get Beckwith acquitted and nobody knew that.”  

Mitchell would begin his reporting by interviewing Beckwith at his home in Tennessee for more than six hours. An interview he won’t forget.

“He walks me out to the car and kind of blocks my way and says if you write positive things about white Caucasian Christians God will bless you. If you write negative things about white Caucasians God will punish you, if God does not punish you directly several individuals will do it for him. So his wife made me a sandwich, I think you can guess what I did with the sandwich.”  

The D.A.’s office reopened the case after his story. Byron De La Beckwith was indicted in 1990 and convicted in 1994.

After the Beckwith trial, the Vernon Dahmer family contacted Jerry. Dahmer was attacked in the middle of the night in Hattiesburg when the Klan firebombed his home. Mitchell met with members of the Dahmer family and a witness on the coast.

“He proceeded to tell us how he overheard Sam Bowers give the orders to kill Vernon Dahmer, he actually worked for Sam Bowers as a kid. He was an errand boy for Sam Bowers.”  

Bowers was convicted in 1998. 

Jerry then turned his attention to the Birmingham church bombings at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

He interviewed Bobby Cherry, one of the last surviving suspects… who tells him he didn’t do it, and that he was on his way home to watch wrestling.

“So when I got back to the newsroom the next day I talked to our librarian, I said check with the Birmingham news and see what was on TV that night, and the next day I got an email that said there was no wrestling. Turns out there hadn’t been wrestling on for years.”

Cherry was convicted in 2002.

It was an interview by Sam Bowers that tipped Jerry off about Edgar Ray Killen… Killen planned and directed the killings of civil rights workers Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. 

“In this interview, Bowers said he was quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out the courtroom a free man and was referring to Edgar Ray Killen.”   

Killen was convicted in 2005.

Because of his reporting Mitchell had received death threats and was told to back off… but that didn’t stop him.

“I sometimes have people tell me, Jerry, why don’t you leave these old guys alone, and I just tell them, these were young killers, they just happened to get old.”    

All four of the klansmen died in prison. 

Jerry Mitchell recently left the Clarion-Ledger and has started a non-profit called Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

He’s also writing a book called “Race Against Time” due out next year. 

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