Jerry Mitchell’s quest for justice: Investigative journalist goes after civil rights-era cold cases

Mariah Howland

Jerry Mitchell: a search for justice and redemption

Martin Luther King, Jr. is projected on the screen in Bentley 207 when Jerry Mitchell, speaking on Feb. 4 as part of JSC’s Black History Month events, says he has a problem with Black History Month.

“And that problem is this,” Mitchell says. “It’s our history. Not black or white history. It’s our history, no matter what color we are. An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice.

“When we as a people are silent about justice, evil follows.”

Mitchell has built a career out of breaking that silence.

He first made noise as a 29-year-old reporter for the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, after seeing the film “Mississippi Burning,” starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe.

The film was based on the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.

Mitchell saw the film with two FBI agents and a journalist involved with the case, and was struck by the fact that “these guys did these evil deeds and got away with it.”

That idea compelled him to investigate a number of civil rights cold cases, investigations which have led to the incarceration of four former members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Two of those Klansmen were responsible for the deaths of NAACP leaders.

One was involved in the Burmingham church bombing in 1963, which killed four African-American girls, and was the subject of a Spike Lee documentary, “Four Little Girls.”

Another was responsible for orchestrating the killings depicted in “Mississippi Burning,” the film that inspired Mitchell’s investigations.

“If someone says I can’t have something, I want it, like… a million times more,” Mitchell said.

Someone said Mitchell couldn’t see the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission records when he began investigating the murder of Vernon Dahmer.

“So being a typical cynical journalist, I thought, ‘There’s something in there, and I want it,’” Mitchell said.

Dahmer, an NAACP leader in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, died of fatal burns after Klansmen firebombed his home on Jan. 10, 1966.

“Can you imagine this?” Mitchell asked. “This is at like two o’clock in the morning.”

Dahmer woke, realized what was going on, and helped his family – which included his wife and two young sons – out of the burning house. He fired at the Klansmen.

He died the next day.

“A few weeks later in the mail came his voter registration card,” Mitchell said. “He’d fought his whole life for it.”

A photograph from the day of Dahmer’s death shows his four sons standing in the wreckage of their home.

They’re pictured wearing their uniforms. All four served in the U.S. military.

KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers was believed to have ordered Dahmer’s murder.

Bowers was tried four times, each ending in a mistrial.

More than 30 years later, Jerry Mitchell started making noise.

“I developed sources who started leaking files [from the Sovereignty Commission],” Mitchell said. “Now keep in mind that the chances were a million to one against the case ever being reopened.”

But thanks to new evidence discovered by Mitchell, the case was reopened, and Bowers was sentenced to life in prison.

JSC behavioral sciences professor Jerry Himelstein helped.

Himelstein, then the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, was called to help provide protection for one of Mitchell’s informants during a private meeting.

“We were meeting in this seedy little hotel room,” Himelstein recalled, “in the middle of the day. Five guys in this room. We checked in at one o’clock, checked out at 3:30.”

“God knows what they thought we were doing.”

Mitchell said Himelstein didn’t find out until the night of Mitchell’s JSC presentation that “everybody had guns except me and Jerry. But I had my pen.”

Himelstein also testified during Bowers’s trial.

“I swear it was the funniest trial I ever covered in my life,” Mitchell said. “Deadly serious topic, but very funny trial.”

Mitchell recalled a Klan-affiliated lawyer falling asleep with his client on the witness stand.

Another former Klansman claimed he couldn’t walk after being arrested. He was in a wheelchair, and claimed he needed an oxygen tank to survive and couldn’t walk without it.

The judge released him on bond.

Mitchell said, “A dozen days later – this is a reporter’s dream – guess where we caught him?

“Teeing off.”

Mitchell said the cap the Klansman wore to the trial was the same he wore while golfing.

“Some people have said to me, ‘Why don’t you leave those old guys alone?’” Mitchell said. “The thing they forget is that these old guys were young killers.

“If someone does something like that, don’t they deserve to be punished, no matter how much has gone by?”

Mitchell said he’s been threatened “dozens of times.”

One Klansmen threatened to slit his throat.

Another claimed to have pictures of his family and to know where he lived.

But Mitchell said he isn’t scared, due to “an unexpected gift” he’s gleaned from his investigations.

“That’s learning to live fearlessly,” he said. “Not learning to live without fear, but learning to live beyond fear, living for something greater than ourselves – standing up for what’s right even if you get criticized for it.”

He recalled visiting the gravesite of James Chaney, one of the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi, the subject of “Mississippi Burning” – the film which began Mitchell’s investigations.

Chaney’s tombstone reads: “There are those who will die but never live, and those who die but will live forever.”

“Each day we are etching those words on our tombstones,” Mitchell said. “What will they say?”