Harding University graduate Jerry Mitchell was a newspaper reporter in Jackson, Miss., when he went to see the movie Mississippi Burning.
"I was one of several dozen people watching the film, squeezed inside a theater where coarse blue fabric covered metal chairs," Mitchell writes in his new book Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era. "Nothing distinguished this movie house from thousands of other multiplexes across America. Except, of course, that this was not just any place. This was Mississippi--a place where some of the nation's poorest people live on some of the world's richest soil, a place with the nation's highest illiteracy rate and some of the world's greatest writers.
"Decades earlier, Mississippi had bragged in tourist brochures about being The Hospitality State. What it failed to mention was it led the nation in lynchings of African Americans between the Civil War and the civil rights movement. Through newspaper photographs and television news, Americans had witnessed the brutality in Mississippi for themselves. In spring 1963, they saw police dogs attack civil rights workers in Greenwood. Months later, they observed the trail of blood left by NAACP leader Medgar Evers when he was assassinated in the driveway of his Jackson home."
Mississippi Burning, which critic Roger Ebert would call the best film of the year, was based on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers--Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. In the more than three decades since the film came out, Mitchell, who was raised at Texarkana and graduated from Harding in 1981, has been obsessed with this case and other violent episodes that occurred across the South. At a time when white Americans are forced to face this country's history of violence against black citizens, Race Against Time might be the most important book of 2020.
"During the summer of 1964, Americans watched sailors tromp through swamps in search of the three missing civil rights workers, who were last seen leaving the small town of Philadelphia, Miss.," Mitchell writes. "For 44 days, the drama unfolded before the nation. Mississippi's U.S. senator, Jim Eastland, told President Lyndon B. Johnson that he believed the missing trio were part of a 'publicity stunt,' and Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson Jr. suggested they 'could be in Cuba.' Days before the FBI unearthed their bodies on Aug. 4, 1964, the governor spoke at the Neshoba County Fair, just two miles from that grisly discovery. He told the cheering crowd there were hundreds of people missing in Harlem, and 'somebody ought to find them.'
"The killings came to define what the world thought of Mississippi, and no subsequent events had dislodged it by the time I came here in 1986 as the lowliest of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper the Clarion-Ledger. I arrived the day before my 27th birthday, the same day the paper carried a story about the burial of Eastland, the longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who had bragged about having extra pockets sewn into his jacket to kill all those civil rights bills. The days of Jim Crow had long passed when I drove into this capital city of nearly 200,000 with my wife and our baby daughter. Jackson was bursting with New South pride and Old South prejudice, but doing its best to conceal the latter."
Mitchell had done his first investigative reporting at the Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs, where he went to work in 1983. There was no way of knowing at the time that he eventually would delve into the most famous cases of the civil rights era--the Evers assassination, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that killed four girls, the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, and the Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner murders.
"I had been here three years now, from 1986 to 1989, and put thousands of miles on my Honda hatchback in that time, trying to find my feet as a reporter while trying to understand this beautiful and haunted state," Mitchell writes. "When I first heard Mississippians refer to 'the War,' I thought they were talking about Vietnam--only to discover they meant their great-grandfathers' Civil War, which their descendants, it seemed, had never stopped fighting. At my desk, I had the Jan. 9, 1989, issue of Time, which featured the Mississippi Burning movie on the cover. Jackson had been abuzz about the film since last spring, when some residents complained about 'Hollywood liberals' invading their town. Disdain turned to curiosity when word spread that actor Gene Hackman had been spotted at Hal and Mal's, a popular pub and eatery."
Mitchell volunteered to cover the state premiere at a Jan. 10 press screening. He wound up sitting next to Roy K. Moore, retired special agent in charge of the FBI in Mississippi. Mitchell's later conversations with Moore began an obsession that would define the newspaperman's career and earn him national recognition.
"Truth rules," Mitchell writes. "This had been a guiding principle of mine throughout my career. Truth rules, while hate thrives on obfuscation, murkiness and fear. I've been told time and again to let the past be. But I have long found that a true account of a painful past does more good than murky optimism. In our current fight against a new wave of white supremacists, a clear memory is important. We must remember the past waves of white supremacy and the myths they spread. We must remember the many innocent African-Americans and activists the Klan killed."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.