Living fearlessly

The reopening of the civil rights era’s cold cases

Chelsea Jones | 11/7/2013, 5:21 p.m.
Not all racist killers that got away with murder in the past were able to escape trial and conviction completely. ...
Investigative Reporter Jerry Mitchell

The Dallas Examiner

Not all racist killers that got away with murder in the past were able to escape trial and conviction completely. Through the efforts of one man, justice prevailed for a few African Americans whose lives were taken for no other reason than hatred.

Since 1989, Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper in Jackson, Miss., has researched and written about cold murder cases from the civil rights era. His work so far has prompted the reexamination of 29 murders, leading to 24 convictions and the imprisonment of at least six Ku Klux Klansmen.

“For me personally, I believe God’s hands have been involved in these cases,” Mitchell told the audience at the Texas State NAACP’s Texas Heroes Banquet. The banquet, which was held Oct. 12 at the Double Tree Hotel in Richardson, concluded the organization’s 77th annual convention.

Mitchell stated that Mississippi Burning, a 1988 film loosely based on the FBI investigation into the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, inspired him to learn about unpunished murderers from the Civil Rights Movement. It bothered him that not only did some of these people get away with their crimes, but that others knew that they had gotten away with it.

His first article dealt with the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist and NAACP field secretary in Mississippi by Klansman Byron De La Beckwith. Mitchell said that when his story ran in 1989, there was a slim chance of the case being reopened. There was no transcript of the case, no murder weapon and nothing of value existed in the court files.

However, a few months later, Jackson police found a box that contained photographs from the crime scene, including one that featured Beckwith’s fingerprint lifted from the murder weapon. Months after that, Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers, gave Mitchell a copy of the court transcript from the trial that she had been keeping in a safety deposit box. In addition, the murder weapon was found.

Mitchell also learned that at the same time the state of Mississippi was prosecuting Beckwith for killing Evers, the State Sovereignty Commission, which was overseen by the governor, was secretly assisting the defense in trying to get Beckwith acquitted. The jury was hung twice.

This evidence lead to the reopening of the case, and in 1990, Beckwith was indicted. He was convicted in 1994. Mitchell expressed that when the guilty verdict was read, waves of joy could be heard down the hall.

“I just felt chills because I knew that this wasn’t the only unpunished killing of the Civil Rights Movement. There were hundreds,” Mitchell said, which spurred him to investigate more cases.

Mitchell’s role in the Beckwith case was portrayed in the 1996 film, Ghosts of Mississippi, which explored the 1994 trial. Mitchell mentioned that people often ask him if Beckwith was really as racist as depicted in the film. In fact, Mitchell remarked that Beckwith was even more racist.

After conducting an interview with Beckwith, Mitchell recounted that Beckwith informed him, “If you write positive things about White Caucasian Christians, God will bless you. If you write negative things about White Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. If God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for Him.”