Briefly Noted: ‘Race Against Time’ by Jerry Mitchell

He’s been called “a loose cannon,” a “pain in the ass” and a “white traitor.” For more than 15 years, Jerry Mitchell has unearthed documents, cajoled suspects and witnesses, and quietly pursued the evidence in unsolved murders of civil rights activists. Mitchell’s investigative reporting and sustained coverage for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, has brought to justice four Ku Klux Klan members, beginning with the conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and, most recently, Edgar Ray Killen who was found guilty in June for orchestrating the murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in 1964. – Columbia School of Journalism, Chancellor Award Winner Bio of Jerry Mitchell

If you’re old enough to have been around during the 1960s violence led by the KKK (I am), then you know that fires, bombs,  clubs, knives, and bullets wielded by the KKK took a lot of lives but these events seldom led to arrests and convictions. I grew up in that world and I knew the reason why. Nobody saw nothin’.

However a reporter named Jerry Mitchell thought there had probably been much to see and that since there’s no statute of limitations on murder, those unsolved KKK murders needed another look. As John Grisham said, “For almost two decades, investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell doggedly pursued the Klansmen responsible for some of the most notorious murders of the civil rights movement. This book is his amazing story. Thanks to him, and to courageous prosecutors, witnesses, and FBI agents, justice finally prevailed.”

From the Publisher

On June 21, 1964, more than twenty Klansmen murdered three civil rights workers. The killings, in what would become known as the “Mississippi Burning” case, were among the most brazen acts of violence during the Civil Rights Movement. And even though the killers’ identities, including the sheriff’s deputy, were an open secret, no one was charged with murder in the months and years that followed.

It took forty-one years before the mastermind was brought to trial and finally convicted for the three innocent lives he took. If there is one man who helped pave the way for justice, it is investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell.

In Race Against Time, Mitchell takes readers on the twisting, pulse-racing road that led to the reopening of four of the most infamous killings from the days of the Civil Rights Movement, decades after the fact. His work played a central role in bringing killers to justice for the assassination of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and the Mississippi Burning case. Mitchell reveals how he unearthed secret documents, found long-lost suspects and witnesses, building up evidence strong enough to take on the Klan. He takes us into every harrowing scene along the way, as when Mitchell goes into the lion’s den, meeting one-on-one with the very murderers he is seeking to catch. His efforts have put four leading Klansmen behind bars, years after they thought they had gotten away with murder.

Race Against Time is an astonishing, courageous story capturing a historic race for justice, as the past is uncovered, clue by clue, and long-ignored evils are brought into the light. This is a landmark book and essential reading for all Americans.

In 1964, I didn’t think anyone would have the guts to find and publish the truth, the in-depth truth that names names and brings people to court. Jerry Mitchell did what all reporters should have been doing. This book came out a year ago: since then, I hope it has inspired other reporters to look deeper into their stories about racial violence stemming from hate groups.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four anti-racism novels: “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Lena,” and “Fate’s Arrows.” They are available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover through major online booksellers and via your local bookstore’s orders from its Ingram Catalog.,

I should have been there

In the early 1960s, Tallahassee, Florida where I grew up was the site of multiple lunch counter sit-ins and movie theater protests. Many of these were organized by CORE and drew a fair amount of participation from students at the primarily black Florida A&M University. I was attending high school and college (FSU) in Tallahassee during these protests, but I wasn’t there.

Florida Memory Photo

Woolworth’s Lunch Counter – Florida Memory Photo

My excuses for not being there are many, including:

  • Tallahassee Police, who sided with the angry white on-lookers, we physically and verbally abusive.
  • Protesters’ eyes were damaged by the use of tear gas.
  • Protesters were fined and/or put in jail for violating a restraining order.
  • The KKK threatened not only the Blacks but the scattering of whites who joined the picketing and lunch counter sit-ins. Burning crosses appeared in people’s front yards.
  • Picketers were assaulted around town and once a person was identified, picketers were likely to have their yards filled with angry people.
  • I wasn’t ready to take on the backlash that I’d be subjected to from high school and college students who had been my friends.
  • I was sure I’d be fired from my jobs and that my participation would cause trouble for my father who was an FSU professor.

As FAMU student and CORE organizer Patricia Stephens Due–who was tear-gassed and ended up with permanent eye damage–said in her book Freedom in the Family–most Blacks weren’t there either even though the common perception is that they were a united front. Not so.

When I was working for Western Union across the street from the Florida Theater, it would have been easy to walk over there and join the pickets or sit at that lunch Woolworth’s lunch counter while on break. There’s an empty seat in the foreground of that lunch counter photo. Logically, it would have been easy to sit there, but when fear of the consequences takes over, it becomes emotionally impossible to sit there.

Looking back today, I’m embarrassed by my excuses and lack of courage.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel The Sun Singer is currently free on Kindle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dang, another singing telegram to deliver

Those of us who delivered Western Union telegrams on our bicycles occasionally got stuck with a singing telegram: usually “Happy Birthday.” While Western Union, mostly associated these days with transferring money, brought back the service in in 2011, telegrams as they had been known for many years cased in 2006.

I delivered telegrams in the 1960s when the service was still in demand due to the high prices of long distance calls in those days. There were Candygrammes, of course, and messages that required WU to sing. Frankly, I preferred it when the telegraphers at the local office–who looked like character actors out of “Medicine Woman” or “Gunsmoke” or “High Noon”–gathered around a telephone and sang “Happy Birthday” to the person receiving the message.

I didn’t care for singing telegrams when I had to deliver one, stand there on the doorstep, and sing “Happy Birthday” to the recipient. Oddly enough, I got more applause in African American neighborhoods than White Neighborhoods because: (a) I was the only white boy who ever came there, and (b) because I was signing on somebody’s front porch to a growing audience of neighbors who were amused at such an uncommon sight.

They liked my spunk, I think, for pretending to be able to sing. My singing has always been marginal, and I think the telegram’s recipient (and all those in adjoining houses) always knew that. But I gave it a shot and, over time, was more or less a fixture of the neighborhood on my old three-speed bike and my yellow Western Union badge.

Those who seldom got telegrams assumed they brought bad news. I enjoyed handing over a Candygram because it wasn’t a frightening thing. Singing, I could do without. When the telegram brought bad news, I was often asked to read it and sometimes write down the recipient’s reply. Those intensely personal encounters with strangers were almost too intense to carry home at the end of my shift.

I was a ham radio operator in those days and wished most of those getting telegrams would communicate with their family and friends directly and leave me out of the loop–especially when the news wasn’t good. Plus, Morse code was so much easier than signing for those of us who were tone deaf.

Malcolm

 

Looking back at civil rights protests with regrets

In the 1960s, African Americans (organized in large part by CORE) picketed the two major down town Tallahassee, Florida, theaters, the bus station and numerous lunch counters because these facilities were segregated. I was out of town when this protest occurred in May 1963 at the Florida Theater. Most of the time, I was in town but stayed away from the protesters even though I supported their cause. I still regret this.

Why wasn’t I there?

  • Fear of the white hecklers who openly hobnobbed with police.
  • Fear of the KKK.
  • Fear of losing friends and becoming an outcast.
  • Worry that my father would lose his government job.
  • Worry that my mother would lose her church volunteer work positions.

At the time, these concerns were very real. Unfortunately, they are in somewhat different ways, still real today.

The late Patrician Stephens Due, a Tallahassee CORE volunteer and a student at Tallahassee’s Black college (FAMU) was at the center of many of the Tallahassee protests. She would write later in the book she co-authored with her daughter that when it came down to it, a very small minority of African Americans actively took part in sit-ins or picketing. Fewer Whites took part even though many of us always rode in the backs of city buses when there was space. That wasn’t enough.

Looking back, I’m sorry that I didn’t do more.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two novels about racism in Florida, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”