TUPELO • While “Race Against Time” is longtime investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell’s first foray into book writing, the procedural detective story is the accumulation of 30 years of experience.
On Wednesday at Gumtree Bookstore, Mitchell signed copies of his book, which encourages readers to join him on his journey uncovering those responsible for the assassination of Medgar Evers, firebombing that killed Hattiesburg voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls, and the Mississippi Burning murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County.
“My hope is that it enlightens (and) that it helps them learn more about what happened. I hope the story is compelling to them. They go on the same journey I went on,” Mitchell said.
In the book, Mitchell details investigating each cold case, starting with the Evers case. Only 29 at time time and a reporter at the Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell said he knew history was unfolding. He spent six hours interviewing the Ku Klux Klansman who killed Evers, Byron De La Beckwith, and made it his mission to interview other responsible killers.
“I felt very strongly that I needed to get all the killers. I wanted to get the killers to talk and I wanted to get to them early before they got a lawyer, before the authorities started to question them, all those kinds of things,” Mitchell said.
He was contacted by the Dahmer family and others on his subsequent reporting of the other cases. For the Mississippi Burning case, he was able to interview one of the last living suspects in the case, Bobby Cherry, and was able to prove his alibi of watching wrestling on TV to be fake. The FBI was already investigating the case, and it was used as evidence during trial.
While researching the Mississippi Burning case and others, Mitchell was astounded and often angry that so many men were associated with the killing and not punished for it. Both his faith and desire for justice for Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney kept him moving. He kept their FBI wanted posters on his computer desktop as a reminder to not forget about them and recalls a pivotal moment when he visited Chaney’s grave.
“I remember praying for justice to be done, and it’s amazing, over and over again. I am a person of faith, so I feel that God’s hand has been involved in these cases,” Mitchell said.
Prior to researching these cases, Mitchell said he knew practically nothing about the civil rights movement in terms of violence associated with it, and said he learned a lot about it in the process.
“It changed me, and I think what happened with the cases changed Mississippi and hopefully the country, too,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said several readers have shared not knowing all the details about the cases that he provides in his book, including those who believed they were familiar with the cases. His own mother, who is close to Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers’ widow, and Evers’ daughter, Reena, had tears in her eyes once she finished reading.
“She said, ‘I never realized all of what Myrlie went through,’ and I thought, great. I feel like the book accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” Mitchell said.
He also hopes “Race Against Time” helps in terms of race relations.
“I’ve heard a number of people who are white and read the book said, ‘I never knew all that happened,’ and they’re shocked. Maybe it can help them understand what African Americans, black Mississippians, went through,” Mitchell said.
The book has received great reviews, including one from the New York Times and in Oprah Magazine. However, for Mitchell, the greatest reward has been getting to know the impacted families.
“I feel honored knowing them,” Mitchell said.