Jerry Mitchell, veteran investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, reminisced on his journalistic legacy of bringing justice to former Klu Klux Klansmen during his speech at the SEJC Best of the South Awards Banquet on Friday, Feb. 17.
“I truly believe we work in one of the world’s most noble professions,” Mitchell said, addressing the crowd of about 300 students and advisers. “And when we are at our most noble, we make a difference in people’s lives.”
He noted this difference can come in many forms: by telling stories, telling the truth or even changing the conversation.
Mitchell recalled when he was in high school and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan visited his hometown, Texarkana. He covered Reagan’s speech as the editor of the Tiger Times, his high school newspaper. He recalled a day spent with Hillary Clinton and the time he interviewed Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
“That’s the beauty of journalism,” he said; “you get to meet so many amazing people.”
Mitchell is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won a MacArthur genius grant. His career has focused mainly on racially motivated crimes and racial reconciliation; his investigative endeavors and stories led to the conviction of four Klansmen.
“You have far more power than you realize,” he told the students.
Mitchell said he’s always been inspired by Medgar Evers, a NAACP field secretary who investigated racial crimes, such as the infamous Emmett Till murder in Mississippi in 1954. Evers, 37, was shot and killed in his driveway on June 12, 1963, by Byron De La Beckwith, a Klansman.
Mitchell discovered the Mississippi Legislature had sealed all the records concerning Evers’ death for 50 years. That was his cue to start digging.
“If someone tells me I can’t have something, I want it like a million times worse,” he said, chuckling. “If you’re like that, you belong in reporting.”
He discovered the Mississippi State Sovereignty Committee aided De La Beckwith’s defense attorney to keep him from being convicted.
Thirty years later, Mitchell interviewed De La Beckwith and later found himself in the courtroom when De La Beckwith was finally convicted for Evers’ murder.
“I just felt chills, because the impossible had suddenly become possible. I believe that’s what journalism is all about,” Mitchell said.
At the end of his speech, Mitchell addressed the public’s attitude toward news media today. He mentioned how people are calling the press “dishonest,” but brushed it off with, “Oh, please, I’ve had worse insults from Klansmen.” He noted his career has been filled with death threats, as many journalists’ lives are, but encouraged students not to be afraid of what people say.
“The thing is, those death threats led to an unexpected gift for me,” Mitchell said. “The gift of living fearlessly. Living fearlessly is not about living without fear; living fearlessly is about living beyond fear. Living fearlessly is about living for something greater than ourselves.”