Investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell thinks that it’s not too late to go after Ku Klux Klan members for their civil right abuses, he told a room full of people at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Wednesday night.
In a conversation with NPR’s Jami Floyd celebrating Black History Month, Mitchell detailed three of the several stories he investigates in his new book. In “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era,” he investigates murders throughout the 1950s and 60s in the South. Although these cases are over 50 years old, Mitchell still finds value in digging up information that was silenced in the name of discrimination.
“I hope the book is a means through which we can get honest,” he said.
During Floyd and Mitchell’s conversation, which began with her joking that she “stalks him on Twitter,” he made the case that Jim Crow era stories are still relevant today. The veteran Clarion-Ledger reporter and creator of The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting said that not only were the stories of people like Emmett Till and Medgar Wiley Evers – two black people killed in 1955 and 1963 respectively – important then, but that they are still important today.
“A murder has no statue of limitations,” he recalled that one of his sources told him, “and I believe that.”
In one of his investigative efforts, Mitchell looked into the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing
September 15, 1963. While the FBI identified four Klansmen – Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Cherry – as being responsible, no convictions took place until 1977, when Robert Chambliss was tried and convicted for first-degree murder. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Cherry were convinced and sentenced to life in prison.
Recalling Cherry and other white supremacists, Mitchell said, “The Klansmen that I wrote about are dead, died in prison.”
Mitchell, he continued, said he often gets flak for going after the elderly men involved in these cases. He brushed off these criticisms, saying that age does not negate the acts committed against African Americans in the U.S.. “These were young killers, they just get old,” he said.
What doesn’t get old, he said hopefully, is when justice comes to pass.
Remembering his time in courtrooms across his decades-long career, he points out one conviction that he said highlighted how important this work is. “When the word guilty rang out,” he began, “you could hear the waves of joy as they cascaded down the hall.”
At the trials of Klansmen ignored for years, hearing their sentences, he said, reminds him why people need to keep going after these historic cases. “I got chills because the impossible has become possible.”