Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era
By Jerry Mitchell
Simon & Schuster March 2020; $28.00
Reviewed by Leonard Zeskind
On June 21, 1964, civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the KKK. They had been pulled over on a highway by the local police, shot at close range, and buried in an earthen dam. Their bodies were not found for two months. The state refused to prosecute anyone. So, in 1967 the federal government charged eighteen individuals with civil rights violations. Seven were convicted and received relatively minor sentences for their actions. No one was tried or convicted of murder at the time.
Jerry Mitchell, a pale-skinned red-headed reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger first got interested in the Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman case after watching the Mississippi Burning movie in 1988. In Race Against Time, he tells his story of tracking down the remaining remnants of four unresolved cases from the 1960s. Mitchell’s input mattered. And he gives the reader a window into the violence that was used to defend the Jim Crow Era.
Mitchell finds Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of the deceased Michael, significantly helpful. She had remarried, became a lawyer, and played a steady role seeking justice in Mississippi. She pushed for opening the closed Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission files. (More on this dreadful Commission further on.) As I wrote in May 2001 book review of Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement for The Forward newspaper, “Rita Schwerner address(ed) a Democratic Party state caucus less than a month after her husband’s body had been found buried in an earthen Mississippi dam.” She was at the Democratic Party’s 1964 national convention pushing for the seating of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her own contributions over the decades have been significant.
Early in Mitchell’s search for evidence in the Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman case, he called upon Ken Lawrence, who was living in Jackson at the time. Lawrence was known to many activists who appreciated his encyclopedic knowledge and his regularly contributed articles to the Southern Patriot, a monthly publication of the Southern Conference Education Fund. He was also involved when the ACLU first tried to open the files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to public viewing.
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (hereinafter the Commission) was created in 1956 and finally expired in 1977. Its formal stated mission was to “protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states” from “encroachment thereon by the Federal Government“. Its actual goal was to spy on civil rights activists and to make sure they were never successful and that segregation, whites-only voting and white power remained the law of the state.
During its existence, the Commission investigated more than 87,000 persons associated with, or suspected to be associated with, the civil rights movement. From 1960 to 1964, the Commission funded the White Citizens Council, also known as the uptown Klan, in the amount of $190,000 between 1960 and 1964. The Commission also assisted the defense of Byron De La Beckwith, the murderer of Medgar Evers. In 1964, the Commission passed on information about James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, to the conspirators in their murders.
Understanding how the Sovereignty Commission essentially commanded the death of the civil rights activists enabled Mitchell to begin to comprehend how the murders took place. Sometimes an article or opinion piece in the Clarion-Ledger managed to push the process along. He interviewed this one and that; and then that one and this. He even interviewed several times Edgar Ray Killen, the man he and others were pushing to prosecute. Forty-one years after the murders took place, one perpetrator, Edgar Ray Killen, was charged by the state of Mississippi for his part in the crimes. In 2005 he was convicted of three counts of manslaughter and was given a 60-year sentence.
At midnight on June 12, 1963, a sniper using a 30.06 rifle assassinated Medgar Evers on the doorstep of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers, the State President of the NAACP, had been working around the state for voting rights for black people. Jerry Mitchell describes how he gathered evidence that finally brought Byron de la Beckwith, a white supremacist assassin, to justice. Beckwith was convicted in 1991.
Mitchell interviewed Beckwith at his home up a mountain in Tennessee. Mitchell became deeply knowledgeable about Beckwith’s beliefs, including his adherence to Christian Identity, a white supremacist theology. Beckwith regarded himself as a priest, a Phineas Priest, of Identity. And Mitchell came to this reviewer for assistance in understanding Christian Identity, and he names me as a source in his book.
Mitchell tells how he researched this case and the others named above, found evidence where he could, and achieved a modicum of justice for us all. Along the way, Mitchell finds his moral compass led by Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar. She re-married, and after her second husband died, she became chair of the national NAACP’s board of directors from 1995 to 1998. She talked regularly to Mitchell and intervened in that case when necessary.
Byron de la Beckwith was convicted of murder in the Evers instance in 1994. The conviction was upheld in 1997. One of the appeals judges wrote that Beckwith’s “complicity with the Sovereignty Commission’s involvement in the prior trials contributed to the delay.”
Birmingham, Alabama Church Bombing
Mitchell also revisited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that had been bombed on Sunday morning September 15, 1963. Four young girls were murdered: Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11) and many other people injured. He soon focused in on Bobby Cherry and doing the proper investigative work figured out that Cherry did not have an alibi. Mitchell’s reporting re-sparked FBI interest in the case. When an Alabama grand jury indicted Bobby Cherry, they also named Tommy Blanton in the case.
Mitchell followed Cherry up and down through the justice system until he was finally convicted of the murder, almost forty years after the murderous bombing. The reader benefits from his first-person re-telling of the story.
Vernon Dahmer was president of the Forrest County NAACP chapter in Hattiesburg, Mississippi when he was murdered by members of the Mississippi White Knights KKK on January 19, 1966. Like Medgar Evers before him, Dahmer was working to get black folks registered to vote. Thirteen men, most of them with known Klan affiliations, were tried for arson and murder. Four were convicted. But none was Mississippi Klan boss Sam Bowers.
Journalist Mitchell zoomed in on Bowers, and the reader follows the story through the evidence and then the trial. Finally, the Klan boss of bosses was convicted of murder and sent to the state penitentiary, where he died.
There are still visible wrongs that need to be righted. One of the most well-known was the case of Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette Moore. The two were bombed in their home in Mims, Florida on Christmas night 1951. He was state president of the NAACP, and both husband and wife had been fired from their jobs as teachers because of their civil rights activism. The FBI investigated this murder case in 1951–1952, but no one was ever prosecuted. In 2006, a state investigation resulted in naming the likely perpetrators as four Klan members, all long dead. The Moores and many other civil rights-era activists never received proper justice.
Jerry Mitchell’s Race Against Time is a testament to investigative journalism. It should be read by everyone.