“How did he get these former Klansmen to open up to him? Invite him out to a catfish dinner.”

From a review by Joseph Crespino in the Wall Street Journal of the book, Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, by Jerry Mitchell:

In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 murder of Mississippi civil-rights leader Medgar Evers. Beckwith had already been to trial twice for the crime, in 1964, both times ending in hung juries. In the earlier trials, officials from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission—a state agency established to police the color line—provided Beckwith’s defense with background research on potential jurors. This fact remained hidden until 1989, when it was exposed by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, leading to a series of further revelations that resulted in Beckwith’s 1994 retrial. As the former Klansman was led out of the courtroom after his conviction, he repeatedly muttered one man’s name: Jerry Mitchell.

Mr. Mitchell was the Clarion-Ledger reporter who tracked down and interviewed Beckwith, who was by then living in semiseclusion in Signal Mountain, Tenn. Amid Beckwith’s recounting of a lifetime of racist hatreds, Mr. Mitchell asked just enough questions to keep him on topic and solicit new details that would later help prosecutors reopen the case against him. . . .

Mr. Mitchell, a native Texan, was a court reporter in Jackson, Miss., in 1989 when he attended a press screening of the film “Mississippi Burning,” a fictionalized account of the FBI’s investigation into the Neshoba County murders. He was shocked to learn that, despite the identities of the murderers being well known, no one was charged with the crime. It launched Mr. Mitchell on a career in which he was often a crucial link among the victim’s families, prosecutors and politicians, uncovering critical evidence that kept the slow wheels of justice moving. . . .

Mr. Mitchell’s accounts of the trials, and of the investigative reporting that led up to them, are fascinating. Yet one wishes at times that he had put more of himself into the story. We catch only glimpses, for example, of the toll that his single-minded devotion to this dangerous work took on his marriage and family. . . .

How did he, time after time, get these former Klansmen to open up to him? Part of the answer is that he is a native Southerner who knows the subtleties of the culture, like the fact that if you want something from an old white man in Mississippi, one way to get it might be to invite him and his wife out to a catfish dinner, as Mr. Mitchell did with one Klansman.

Mr. Crespino, a native of Noxubee County, Miss., teaches American history at Emory University. His most recent book is “Atticus Finch: The Biography— Harper Lee, Her Father, and the Making of an American Icon.”

Speak Your Mind