Jerry Mitchell once took Edgar Ray Killen and his wife out for a catfish dinner. He talked to Killen a number of other times, and found him “kind,” even “grandfatherly.” Then Mitchell, a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, wrote the stories that helped get Killen indicted for one of the most notorious crimes of the segregated South.
Killen—a 79-year-old sawmill owner, preacher, and reputed Ku Klux Klan leader—stands charged in the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—killed and buried by a mob near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964. After 44 days of searching, the men’s bodies were found, but the state didn’t charge anyone with murder. A 1967 federal conspiracy case landed seven men in jail, but the jury hung on Killen. The case was reopened in 1999 after Mitchell reported that Sam Bowers, one of the men convicted in ’67, boasted in a sealed interview that the real instigator of the crime was allowed to “walk out of the courtroom a free man.”
It was a movie about the 1964 slayings, Mississippi Burning, that in 1989 spurred Mitchell’s 16-year investigation into a host of unsolved murders of civil rights workers. “Looking back now I feel like an idiot because I knew so little about the civil rights movement,” he tells the Voice.
He wasn’t the only one in the dark. That same year, Mitchell was leaked some sealed files from the defunct State Sovereignty Commission, a clandestine Mississippi agency that spied on civil rights workers from 1956 to 1973. After he began exposing the breadth of the anti-civil rights conspiracy, “one thing led to another,” Mitchell recalls, like “a snowball at the top of the mountain.”
First, he reported that the sovereignty commission had assisted the defense of Byron de la Beckwith against charges of murdering Medgar Evers in 1963. After two trials ending in hung juries in 1964, Beckwith was finally convicted in 1994. Then Mitchell tackled the 1966 murder of activist Vernon Dahmer, leading to Bowers’s conviction in 1998 for that crime. Mitchell also helped reopen the investigation into the 1964 murders of activist Charles Moore and his friend Henry Dee, and exposed the flawed alibi used by Bobby Frank Cherry, the man eventually convicted in 2002 for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.
But no civil rights case in Mississippi attained the notoriety of the Philadelphia murders. The fact that two of the victims were white is one reason. The 44-day search, the national media coverage, and the way the discovery of the bodies exposed the lies of Mississippi’s leaders, also made it captivating. “I don’t think I’ve had a day in 40 years,” says Stanley Dearman, who covered the 44-day search for The Meridian Star and then ran the local paper in Philadelphia, The Neshoba Democrat, from 1966 to 2000, “that I didn’t think about this case in some way. It possesses you.”
But for most of the ’70s and ’80s, Dearman says, “a feeling of futility” hung over efforts to reopen the case. Calls for a new trial grew in the ’90s, and Mitchell’s 1998 story got the local law to take another look. In a seven-part series in 2000, Mitchell revealed several fresh secrets, like the holdout juror in Killen’s 1967 trial who refused to convict a preacher.
Ben Chaney, brother of the slain James, says he thinks Mitchell has done a “great job of keeping this case alive.” Dave Dennis, a coordinator of Freedom Summer 1964, says the case might have been ignored “had it not been for [Mitchell].” Dick Molpus, a former Mississippi secretary of state who pressed to reopen the case, calls Mitchell “a living, breathing, bona fide hero.”
Indeed, the story is a white liberal’s dream: Lone reporter gets bad guys, fixes history. But while praise for Mitchell is universal, feelings about the scope of the Killen case are not unanimous—a fact given little attention by the media.
“I feel that this is a sham. This is a whitewash,” Ben Chaney tells the Voice. Dennis concurs: “We feel [Killen] is just a part of a larger conspiracy.”
Publicly at least, the state has not closed the books on the case. The state attorney general told The Clarion-Ledger that, even after the Killen indictment, the investigation of the Philadelphia murders was continuing.
Dennis wants equal attention paid to other unsolved civil rights murders. More than that, he’s distrustful of the way white elites have taken center stage in the case instead of local civil rights veterans.
According to Dennis, the Killen trial won’t accomplish much, “other than remove a lot of guilt from the conscience of the people, and [it] can also have the effect of putting a new face on Mississippi as if everything has changed.” And not everything has: Racist violence has ended, but economic injustice permeates, he says. The Killen case could create a false impression of closure.
But the trial “is all we can do,” says Molpus. “The leaders in my community and in Mississippi who were silent when they should have provided leadership will have to carry that burden for the rest of their lives.”
The media often misses the nuances in cases like Killen’s. “When we confront a difficult past, different people have different interests, and reconciliation doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone,” says Jim Campbell, a Brown University historian.
The danger in ignoring those subtleties is that the debate around the Killen trial will be dumbed down for the history books, and not for the first time. Mississippi Burning, for example, was assailed for its historical inaccuracies and portrayal of blacks as pawns in the hands of the good-guy FBI and the bad-guy Klan. But for all its flaws, the film is why Mitchell started digging. “It did, I think, capture the atmosphere,” he says. “It made me understand, ‘Well, you know, you just can’t kind of sleepwalk through this.’ “