Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell told a University of Central Florida audience Tuesday night how he got his hands on sealed documents, interviewed suspects and helped unearth evidence in civil rights era killings.
His work for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., helped put four Klansman behind bars for murder and earned him more than 30 national awards, including the Ralph McGill Medal for Courage, a MacArthur Foundation genius grant and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service.
Mitchell said the movie “Mississippi Burning” inspired him to look further into the old civil rights case during his presentation, which was sponsored by the Nicholson School of Communication as part of the College of Sciences’ Distinguished Speaker series.
“I was unaware of the violence that took place,” he said. “It just shocked me. Here were these three kids that were killed by more than 20 Klansmen and nobody had ever been prosecuted for murder in that case.”
He saw the movie in 1989 when he was 29 years old. Since then, his work has led authorities to reexamine 29 killings and make 22 convictions.
“The most amazing thing has not been the convictions, but the racial reconciliations,” said Mitchell.
Michael Gilmore, a journalism pending major, attended the speech to learn more about investigative reporting.
“I wanted to know what obstacles he came into and how he was able to get all the documents that were sealed from the public,” Gilmore said.
Other audience members asked how he got his sources– many of them suspects in murder cases– to continue speaking to him.
People are usually more than willing to talk about themselves, he said. Some of the best quotes he’s ever gotten were not to questions he asked, but rather casually given to him by the sources. However, Mitchell said his reporting of incriminating quotes and information has made him a target.
“This has not been real popular,” he said. “They’re not throwing a parade for me in Mississippi.”
Mitchell has been bullied, sent threatening letters and been a target of intimidation. He’s had sources threaten him and an editor try to stop him from writing his stories.
But he’s dedicated, and he won’t back down.
“I’m not gonna be bullied into not doing something,” he said.
And he’s not going to give the criminals a pass because their crimes were committed more than 30 years ago. “These were young killers who just happened to get old,” said Mitchell.
Robert Chandler, director of the Nicholson School of Communication, said Mitchell was invited to speak at UCF because he represents what someone can do with a degree in journalism.
“He’s not just reported history, he’s changed it,” said Chandler.
Editor’s Note: This story was written by Samantha Dilday, a UCF journalism student.