An Interview with Investigative Reporter Jerry Mitchell

jerrymitchell

Photo by James Patterson.

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter best known for his working convincing authorities to reopen cold cases from the civil rights era, where his work helped put four 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 and, Edgar Ray Killen, for helping orchestrate the June 21, 1964, killings of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. His work in those cases is also the subject of the book “Race Against Time.”

He is also best known from the Rob Reiner film Ghosts of Mississippi in which he was portrayed by Jerry Levine.

Mitchell went on to write a 10 chapter narrative titled Genetic Disaster in which he investigated a rare genetic element occurring in his own family and the 13 chapter narrative The Preacher and the Klansman which features the story of a preacher/civil rights activist who became friends with a former Klu Klux Klan terrorist.

His investigative work has won him upwards of 20 awards including the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, the first ever Journalist of the Year away from The Southeastern chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, and Columbia University’s John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism just to name a few.

He is currently investigating Carole Baskin in relation to the disappearance of her late husband Don Lewis.

 

Can you tell us a little about where you are from and your earliest memories? How do you think your earlier years helped shape you into who you are today?

I grew up in Texarkana, Texas, which is very much a part of the South. When I was about 9 years old, I came home, saying the “n-word,” which a friend of mine had said. My mother treated me like I had committed a capital offense, and I’m so grateful she did. My parents taught me right about race.

What was the genetic disorder featured in the narrative Genetic Disaster? How did it affect your family over the years? What do you think people can learn from dealing with genetic disorders of any sort?

The genetic disaster is a combination of three diseases: frontal-temporal dementia, muscular dystrophy and Paget’s disease. My grandfather and one of his sisters both died in mental institutions.

There are many genetic diseases, and most of them are rare and, therefore, receive little funding. In fact, more than 25 million Americans suffer from a rare disease — more than any other disease, including cancer and heart disease.

What would you say is the most important thing you learned from your own family?

I am a person of faith, and the lessons my family taught me about God and His love for justice are the ones that have guided me through out my entire life. 

How did you come to be an investigative reporter? What was it about that line of work that drew you in?

I got into journalism because I loved to write. And once I got into the profession, I learned that I was a much better reporter than I was a writer. I had barely begun reporting when I read “All the President’s Men”. What I read inspired me to want to be an investigative reporter.

How did you go about convincing authorities to reopen cold cases from the Civil Rights Era? What was the most challenging issue you faced in doing that?

As a reporter, we can just report the truth or, more accurately, the facts we find. Reporting on a case repeatedly over time creates a drum beat that authorities feel like they can no longer ignore. How can they claim they are for justice when they refuse to pursue it?

What do you think is the most important element in convincing anyone to do…anything?

Make them think it’s their idea.

Can you tell us a little more about The Preacher and the Klansman? How did that come about?

When I was in graduate school in the 1996-97 school year at Ohio State University, I stumbled across serial narrative in newspapers, and I found it fascinating. I wanted to do one after I graduated, and that..’s what I did.

What are your feelings on the current state of Civil Rights in America? How have they changed most over the years and what do you think needs to be done to improve them at this time?

When it comes to race in America, it seems we take a step or two forward, only to take a step or two back. My hope is that this time of examination of race and our nation’s ugly and violent history will prompt us to search our souls and seek solutions that will help heal us.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the world in general?

2020 will be long remembered for these two pandemics: COVID-19 and the racial pandemic. How we address these pandemics will determine how future generations judge us.

What do you think is key to a life well lived?

Living for others instead of ourselves.

How did you become involved in investigating Carole Baskin?

I saw “Tiger King” like everybody else, and as I watched it, I saw this cold case. I feel like God, for whatever reason, has given me these gifts when it comes to pursuing cold cases. I felt obligated to share these gifts in this case because this family has yet to see justice.

How is that going? Is there anything that you are at liberty to share about that particular case?

I’m currently working on a project called “Poverty and the Pandemic” that will explore how Mississippi’s poorest places are dealing with the pandemic.

What do you hope the accomplish over the course of your career before your time is up?

No goals beyond what I’m doing now … seeking to shine in the darkness, expose injustices and tell the truth, because it is truth that helps bring justice.

If you don’t mind my asking what are your feelings on life and death and what comes after? How do you hope to be remembered when your own time comes?

I’m a disciple of Christ, so I do believe in an afterlife, and I do desire to live for Him. I know that He loves justice.

This may sound strange, but I don’t care how people remember me. I just want to do the right thing.

Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

Investigative reporting can help expose truth, and that truth can help bring justice. Without truth, there is no justice.

raceagainsttime

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