A great highlight reel

By BRYAN DAVIS EDITOR,

Over the last several years, I’ve taken a keen interest in the history of the Mississippi Delta, especially since I came back here to live in 2017.

Jerry Mitchell is someone I’ve always wanted to interview.

Jerry is an award-winning investigative reporter and a former Pulitzer finalist.

He spent over three decades working on civil rights cold cases, among others, at the Clarion Ledger in Jackson. His investigative reporting led to the reopening and successful prosecution of four Klansmen guilty of murders during the civil rights era.

Lately, Mitchell has been reporting on the dysfunction at the Mississippi Department of Corrections, especially as it pertains to Parchman here in Sunflower County.

Retired from the Clarion Ledger, Mitchell is heading up the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a digital and nonprofit platform that aims to keep investigative journalism alive in Mississippi.

He’s also released a book about the civil rights cold cases he’s worked on called Race Against Time.

When I saw the book was about to be released, and that Mitchell had a Feb. 11 book signing scheduled at Greenwood’s Turn Row Books, I reached out and asked him if he’d be gracious enough to drop by The E-T for a short interview.

Mitchell not only accepted the invitation, he also sent me an advance copy of the book, which I received in early January.

I don’t read as many books as I used to, mostly due to the fact that I stare at a computer screen all day and my eyes are pretty tired at night, but I made it my mission to finish Race Against Time.

I did so in a week.

And despite the flash flooding in the Delta, and the fact that Mitchell had just flown back to Jackson from St. Louis ahead of his Greenwood appointment, he still made the trip over to Indianola for the interview.

We’ll be releasing some of the video and audio from that interview in the next few days, but I wanted to give a sneak peek about some of the highlights of the one-on-one.

Highlight No. 1: I asked Mitchell about some of the run-ins he had with convicted Klansmen (before they were convicted) during his investigations. Twice in the book, Mitchell visited with these killers and their wives at the time. I asked him what kind of read he got from their spouses. In the case of Edgar Ray Killen, Mitchell said his wife seemed more withdrawn and “dutiful.”

In his dealings with Byron De La Beckwith, Mitchell said his wife was as bad of a racist as Beckwith was. And Mitchell noted that Beckwith was by far the worst racist he encountered in his journeys.

Highlight No. 2: Mitchell mentioned multiple times in his book that he was unsuccessful at solving cold cases more often than he was successful. One of those cases was that of the murder of Emmett Till. In the early ‘90s, Mitchell said he came to the Delta to research the case. At one point, he thought he might have had an opening with a kidnapping charge, but he later found out the statute of limitations on kidnapping in the 1950s in Mississippi was two years.

Mitchell did come back to Sunflower County a couple of years ago to visit the barn, near Drew, where Till was beaten and killed.

Mitchell said he believes there should be a historical marker near the barn.

Highlight No. 3: I couldn’t let Mitchell get away without discussing the current state at Parchman.

Even before he left the Clarion Ledger, Mitchell was reporting on the state of Mississippi’s prisons. Back in 2019, one of the reports from MCFIR actually predicted the violence that took place in early January at Parchman and other facilities around the state.

Mitchell released a series of articles about Parchman and MDOC in January, exposing inhumane conditions.

In the last month, Gov. Tate Reeves has ordered MDOC to start the process of shuttering Parchman’s infamous Unit 29.

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