Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Friday, 30 October 2009

Keeping cold cases burning

Jerry Mitchell: "I had all sorts of nasty phone calls from people"

By Philippa Thomas
BBC News, Jackson, Mississippi

Newspaper reporter Jerry Mitchell does not give up easily. He was working the courtroom beat in the southern city of Jackson, Mississippi when he first saw the film Mississippi Burning.

It changed his life.

The movie was loosely based on the murder of three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964.

The young men, one black and two white, had been trying to help African-Americans register to vote in the then segregated Southern state.

They died at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. For years, no one was prosecuted for the killings.

FBI Missing poster
A film on the murder of three civil rights activists prompted Mitchell to act

Since learning of their story, Jerry Mitchell has dug deep into so-called cold cases from Mississippi's violent past - when African Americans were threatened, shot or burned alive just for trying to vote.

In the last 15 years, his investigations have helped to put four Klan members behind bars. The most recent case was that of Edgar Ray Killen who was convicted of manslaughter in the Mississippi Burning case.

Jerry Mitchell says there was a conspiracy of silence around the cases.

"People were afraid to talk, lest they be killed," he told me.

Today, Mr Mitchell's work is the pride of The Clarion-Ledger newspaper, which was once seen as a mouthpiece of the racist establishment. Back in the bad old days, some even nicknamed it "The Klan Ledger".

Another case Mr Mitchell managed to crack was the murder of Vernon Dahmer. He was a civil rights leader who had the audacity to try to register black votes.

On 10 January 1966, a gang from the Ku Klux Klan firebombed his home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Today, his family lives on the same property at the site of the attack.

I drove the two hours from Jackson to talk to them about that night. They described how he stood in the flames, shooting back at the Klansmen.

Bettie Dahmer
Black people had no one to turn to
Bettie Dahmer, daughter of murdered civil rights leader

He died of his burns, but his wife and children got out. His widow, Ellie, shook her head as she told me they had only just relaxed after years of living on guard.

"If only we'd still been sleeping in shifts, one of us would have been awake when they came," she said.

Ellie said that for years, they didn't talk much about that night.

But Jerry Mitchell's painstaking investigation built the prosecution case against the man everyone knew had ordered the attack: Sam Bowers - the Imperial Wizard of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

He was sentenced to life in prison in 1998. Three years ago, he died in prison.

Vernon's daughter Bettie told me things were very different in the 1960s.

"Law enforcement in Mississippi then, probably three quarters of them were Klan members or sympathisers. Black people had no one to turn to."

Open wounds

Now they do. New information dug up by Jerry Mitchell, and efforts by many groups including student and civil rights has helped prompt the FBI to officially reopen 43 cold cases in Mississippi alone, plus others across the Deep South.

Some say the very act of revisiting the cases just revives old tensions - even hatred.

Sitting in his office, Mr Mitchell played me recordings of some of the death threats he has received, which are now being investigated by the FBI.

But this man with a mission does not plan to back off. He has already won numerous awards for his work investigating racist hate crimes.

And he has just received an extraordinary award that will help him redouble his efforts.

In September, Jerry Mitchell was named a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant - providing him with $500,000 over the next five years, no strings attached, to continue his work.

I asked what he will do with the windfall. "There are still four suspects alive in the Mississippi Burning case," he says.

I ask him if they should be worried. He shrugged, then smiled: "They should".

Ex-KKK man freed over 1964 deaths
10 Sep 08 |  Americas
Preacher jailed over KKK killings
23 Jun 05 |  Americas
Trial brings up US town's painful past
12 Jun 05 |  Americas

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