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I’m Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter with the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger. My specialty has been in investigating long-dormant murder cases, such as that of Ku Klux Klan member Byron de la Beckwith, who was tried twice in 1964 for the murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, both times ending in a hung jury. My work helped reopen the case and culminated in the conviction and life sentence of Beckwith in 1994.
My reporting has also played a key role in the convictions of Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers for ordering the fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966, of Bobby Cherry for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls, and of Edgar Ray Killen for helping to orchestrate the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi. I've also produced a broad range of reports on such subjects as racial reconciliation in the South and judicial bribes and chicanery in Mississippi, as well as a series on my own family’s battle against a rare genetic ailment.
I’ve been called “the South’s Simon Wiesenthal” and in 2009, I was named a MacArthur Fellow. Right now, I'm working on my memoir, “Race Against Time”. I look forward to your questions!
I'll hop on at 2ET, and I look forward to your questions!
Sorry for the delay, but I'm here to answer questions! Ask away.
Thanks so much for all your questions, but I have to head out for now. Really enjoyed this!
What was the scariest moment in your career?
I guess when Byron De La Beckwith (assassin of Medgar Evers) made a remark about how if God didn't punish me, several individuals would do it for him.
I wanted to get your take on the value of 'exposure' in journalism/documentaries. In many cases, that visibility is what the subject of a story will get in return for sharing/experiencing some awful things that happened to them. Have you ever felt troubled by the benefit a reporter gets in exchange for the tragedy the subject took part in? Certainly some media is more exploitative than others, but at least philosophically, profiting from others' misery is often a part of the deal.
Obviously there is exploitation out there. That's pretty obvious in some of the programming. In terms of the journalism end of that, I have conversations with people about this. My intention is not to exploit them, but, more often than not, to give them a chance to talk, a voice that they may not have been given in the past.
Is there a general commonality that KKK members have in common?
Good question. Most of the KKK guys back then were blue-collar, but some were businessmen and white-collar professionals.
You have the power to permanently erase an everyday item from existance. Which item do you remove and why?
Have no idea. Thanks for asking, though.
How do you feel fighting the good fight and being part of the solution?
Yes, I believe journalism can play a key role in pointing out problems and possible solutions.
What are you most proud of in your investigative journalism career, and why?
I'm just happy for the families that have finally seen convictions in these cases. That means a lot to me.
Did you see the film Blood in the Face? Any thoughts on it?
I've read the book, which is excellent, and I highly recommend it. Jim Ridgeway is a terrific reporter.
Thank you for your work, Mr. Mitchell. What do you believe is the most effective tool you use for researching information that existed before the internet? How do you determine whether you are on an important lead vs. one that leads to a dead end?
Documents are key in almost any cold case. What did the investigators come up with at the time? Names of witnesses, etc. No way to tell in advance sometimes whether something is a dead end or not. I've learned my lesson not to judge in advance.
Firstly as an African American I want to thank you for your active efforts.
How would you describe the activities of the Klan now im 2016?
How often are you seeing the Klan doing thing like lynching and cross burning on African American property's ?
The KKK was very powerful in Mississippi in the 1960s. It's more of a joke now, both here and nationally. White supremacist beliefs, however, have persisted in different forms.
Thanks for the awesome work that you've done and for doing this AMA! I think we all can say you have remarkable conviction.
Question: People have called you a race traitor before. What would you say to that? Also, there are a lot of people who believe that these cases are old and dead, and that thankfully racism doesn't exist anymore because the Klan is pretty much dead. What are your thoughts about that?
A race traitor? I think that's funny. You don't have to look far to find racism today. Look at the nine people killed at the church in Charleston. People call them hate groups, but what it begins with is fear, I believe. When hate and fear mix, this can lead to dehumanization that gives them permission to destroy, figuratively or, in some cases, literally.
Is the KKK clan still active now days?
Yes, the KKK still exists, but it's a shadow of what it was in places like Mississippi. Interestingly, there may be more Klan members today in places like California and Indiana than Mississippi.
1) Are these KKK members ever remorseful years after these murders? Can you talk about the sympathizers who have helped cover up evidence to keep them free all those years?
2) Every day President Obama is criticized for bringing up race and being "divisive". What do you think the US must do to get over its history of discrimination?
(1) Any remorseful KKK guys? A few. Not many. Sympathizers? There were thousands of KKK members, and there were many more sympathizers, unfortunately.
(2) I believe we have to fully recognize our past in order to overcome it.
What is your advice for someone who wants to be an investigative reporter in science fields? Is it different treating the subjects that you work for that others?
I think investigative reporting is the same, whether you're going into science or otherwise. In fact, scientific thinking can help you analyze documents, data, etc.
The Knight Foundation has Knight Science fellowships. You might consider attending an IRE conference, too. They happen each June. Lots of good ideas there and opportunities, too, for networking.
Can you describe your research process - at least your preliminary research, it must be similar from subject to subject?
I first gather as many documents as I can find. Sift through them. Then make a list of people I'm going to interview and talk to them one by one.
What are the secrets to a good interview? How do you get the subject to share?
Most important thing about an interview is getting people to relax and be themselves. Visit them in their homes or where they're comfortable.
Did any of the convicted clan members ever display any level of remorse?
Yes, Billy Roy Pitts did. He was involved in killing Vernon Dahmer. He testified against Sam Bowers and apologized to the Dahmer family.
When you read coverage of these crimes from the time they were committed, what sticks out at you? Were they thorough and accurate, or something else?
Coverage back then? Some good, such as NYT and people who were honestly reporting. Some others, especially some of the Mississippi newspapers, were terrible, including The Clarion-Ledger, where I work now. It has thankfully changed since the 1960s.
Do you ever second guess yourself or your leads?
Oh, sure. That's the business I'm in. We question things.
What advice would you have for a high school student who wants to go into investigative journalism?
Read All the President's Men for starters. And start reading good examples of investigative reporting. Try and imitate the best. IRE is a great resource. Consider attending one of their conferences. Think this year's conference is in New Orleans.
Do you believe that #oscarssowhite sort of de-legitimizes actual racial injustices?
I'll let the Oscar experts take a shot at that one. I'm just a reporter.
Can I write an essay on you???
I'm a student at MC getting a second undergrad, and I've got to do a profile essay on a local person/place for English class. Sounds like you've had an interesting life and would have some interesting stories/things to say.
You can still ask. I'm online now. You're welcome to write essay.
Do you see the KKK branching out to other countries internationally or north America?
White supremacy and racism have both long existed, predating the KKK, and they are outliving the KKK in other organizations and other forms. We are certainly witnessing the rise of xenophobia in this country.
Clyde Kennard's story is heart-breaking, the kind that you just can't forget about. Of all the stories you have written about, is there one where you just can't seem to move past the injustice of it?
The Clyde Kennard case is one that breaks my heart, too. It's one that has definitely upset me a lot. Was happy to see him exonerated in 2006. Just hated it was posthumously.
Unfortunately there are a lot of unpunished killings in Mississippi and frankly across the nation that are never going to be prosecuted. Those break my heart, too.
Do you think OJ did it?
I actually had one of O.J.'s childhood friends tell me he did.
When was the moment that you realized you had something that could work against Beckwith?
It wasn't a matter of realizing there was enough; it was a matter of starting to dig. That's the way investigative reporting works. You have to begin to dig first.
I talked to him on the phone several times and then went and interviewed him in person in April 1990. Within eight months of my first story (Oct. 1, 1989), it became obvious that a prosecution was going to probably take place.
What's the best quality an investigative reporter should have?
Persistence. Never give up.
More advice to aspiring reporters: Follow the money.
As "real" journalism shrinks and newspapers have less money and staff available to dedicate to investigative journalism, will it just die out? As we move forward, who will do this work and how will they fund it?
Great question. I think investigative reporting will continue. Journalism is now experimenting with different ways of funding investigative reporting. ProPublica is going the nonprofit route. Some others are trying digital subscriptions to pay the way. Newspapers, like the music industry before it, is hitting the digital wall. How do you pay for good journalism? I think it's critical for us to solve this, and I believe we will. ProPublica has done an excellent job, and I know the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has shown that investigative reporting can help a newspaper rebound.
One of my ideas to fund journalism would be to have a reality TV show that would show journalists at work, perhaps on cold cases. I think it would make a fascinating show so that people can see how we work. The popularity of Making a Murderer illustrates that people are fascinated with process.
What do you see in the future of investigative journalism, particularly in the face of the economics of the news industry?
I believe investigative journalism will endure. It's just a matter of finding the best ways to fund it.
What do you think about the proliferation of hate within online communities? Here on Reddit, hate groups from all over the world are able to gather, rhetorically and materially support one another, and provide comparative tactics and strategies for how to better escape prosecution. How do you think this expanded access to like minded people, and supportive places to gather, have influenced the global hate movement? Are there any comparisons that can be drawn with people like Dylan Roof?
Yes, online communities have made it possible for those interested in hate groups to join them, get information and share information. And, yes, it has likely led to more hate around the globe.