Monday, May 18, 2020

Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, by Jerry Mitchell

"Those guys got away with murder...It's not too late."

Simon & Schuster, 2020
418 pp


It's January, 1989 in Jackson Mississippi, and reporter Jerry Mitchell was on assignment for his newspaper The Clarion-Ledger to cover the state premier of  the film Mississippi Burning.  He normally had the "court beat," so this was something different for him.  Mitchell found himself seated next to someone who seemed to know a lot about what was and wasn't true about the film, based on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.  As it happened, that man turned out to be retired special agent Roy K. Moore, who had been in charge of the FBI in Mississippi at the time.  Later, when the rest of the press had gone, Mitchell stayed behind to listen to Moore talk to two other men, another FBI agent and a journalist who had covered the events at the time.  During that conversation he learned that nobody had ever been prosecuted for the murders of the three men, even though "more than twenty Klansmen' were responsible.  Mitchell wondered how it was possible that twenty people, their identities known by locals who'd never turned them in, could get away with murder.   Why hadn't the state of Mississippi done anything about it?  From further conversations with Moore, Mitchell learned that although one killer eventually talked and had given the FBI what it needed for prosecution, the governor of the state "couldn't" do so, "essentially refusing to uphold its own murder laws."

As Mitchell began to research this case he came to learn about the connections between the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which "worked with and even helped fund the white Citizens' Councils" to help fight desegregation in the state, and  the murders of the three activists.  He'd hoped that by bringing certain facts to light he would "spark"  the Attorney General to "pursue new  charges in the case," but it was not to be and the case remained cold.   Feeling like he'd failed, his colleagues reminded him that they had been able to help
"ferret out unreported details about a twenty-five-year-old murder case that many powerful figures had wanted to keep sealed."
That was at least "something."   He  continued to read about other civil-rights "cold cases," and eventually his research  would lead him to into the murder of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of the home and store of Vernon Dahmer Sr. which led to his death,  and the September 1963 bombing of the  Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls -- Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.    All of these crimes were the work of members of the KKK; none of those responsible had ever been punished.  The main issue facing Mitchell was that time was not on his side: witnesses and suspects were dying off.  In a "race against time," Mitchell was determined to bring the details of these crimes into the light through his investigations, hoping that his work might be a driving force into not only getting these old cases reopened, but also that people like Byron de la Beckwith, Sam Bowers, and Bobby Cherry (the KKK members responsible) would finally be brought to justice for their crimes.   Yet, what continued to "gnaw" at him after these successes was the "Mississippi Burning" murders that by 1998, still had not been "reckoned with."  Undaunted, and even as the "pool of witnesses and evidence" decreased, Mitchell continued his efforts for justice in this particular case, determined to bring Edgar Ray Killen, "the moving force" behind these murders, to trial.

The book is divided into five parts, each section under the names of the victims of these horrific crimes, beginning and ending with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.  It is his contention that the "Mississippi Burning" murders were not only the "result of a months-long battle plan," but also that the head of the Mississippi branch of the KKK (the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan), Sam Bowers, meant to send a message
"not just to African-Americans and civil rights activists throughout the state but to the nation at large.  Bowers meant to tell all of America who held power in Mississippi, who called the shots, who could do as they pleased, and who needed to live in fear."
What was just as important, notes Mitchell, is the message of the "murderers' impunity."  As long as they were still in power, as long as they were still free and living among the public, the message would continue to be heard and understood not just in Mississippi, but throughout the entire nation as well.  In each and every case presented here, he offers clear proof of how these people managed to maintain this impunity and escape prosecution;  what I discovered here chilled me not only down to my bones, but to my very soul.  Quite honestly, I was so stunned by what came to light here that right after I'd finished, I could not move for the longest time, just sitting here staring into space and trying to digest what I'd just read. 

While he notes other cases he'd worked on but could not solve, saying that he felt that he'd failed more often than succeeded, I say that he should be beyond proud of what he's accomplished; in bringing out the truth behind these four crimes, he also paved the way for bringing about a long-overdue measure of justice.    He had been told a number of times just to "let the past be," but he has long believed that "Truth rules, while hate thrives on obfuscation, murkiness and fear."   It is important, he says, to know and to remember the truth of what came before in the "past waves of white supremacy" so that we are able to act now and in the future. 

With notes, bibliography, index, etc., the page count runs to just over four hundred pages, but I was so completely engrossed in what I was reading here that the hours just flew by.  I do think it would have helped to have included photos along with text,  but I sat with tablet in hand when I wanted to match names with faces, or to reacquaint myself with the four cases discussed here. And although this rarely happens, I happen to agree with the dustjacket blurber who says that Race Against Time is a "landmark book" and "essential reading for all Americans," adding only that it should be read especially by anyone with even a passing interest in civil rights both past and present.  It's one I'll never, ever forget.

My thoughts are from a reader's perspective; here are a couple of real reviews of this book:

from David J. Garrow, at the Washington Post
from Dean Jobb at The Southern Review of Books

Friday, May 15, 2020

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard

Anchor Books, 2006
416 pp


The River of Doubt begins with Theodore Roosevelt hovering between life and death "deep in the Brazilian rain forest."  It was apparently not quite his time though, as he would go on to finish out his journey through an uncharted tributary of the Amazon, not entirely unscathed but living to tell the tale.  It is a harrowing story of an expedition in which whatever could go wrong did go wrong.  At the same time the author offers a look at the often-unforgiving natural world surrounding these men; she also examines what it was about these particular men that got them through the dangers they faced on their nearly one-thousand mile journey. 

Suffering from a "bruised spirit" after a landslide defeat in his bid for president in 1913, Theodore Roosevelt decided to accept an offer from the Museo Social in Buenos Aires to be a guest lecturer.  He was offered a rather large sum of money for three engagements, but beyond the fees, the trip would allow him the opportunity to see his son Kermit who was working in Brazil.  Roosevelt also had a "passion" for natural history and science, and wondered if perhaps he might be able to somehow "indulge" that passion while in South America. Turning to a friend who just happened to be the president of the American Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt was offered "full support," and was eventually put together with old friend Father John Augustine Zahm, who was at that time planning his own expedition to the Amazon.   Roosevelt was, of course, delighted and at this stage of the game anticipated "a 'delightful holiday' that would provide 'just the right amount of adventure.' " 

The plan was that the expedition would travel north from Buenos Aires by boat along "well-known navigable rivers to the Amazon."  From there the group would go up the Rio Negro and down the Orinoco before crossing Venuezula to the Atlantic.  Plans changed, however, when Brazil's minister of foreign affairs suggested to Roosevelt that perhaps he would prefer to take a trip "down an unknown river" with Colonel C├óndido Rondon, who had earlier discovered and named the Rio da Duvida, but knew very little about either its "course or character."  Rondon would use the opportunity to do a survey of this uncharted territory; it would be more dangerous than the route planned by Zahm for sure, but it was just the challenge that Roosevelt "had been yearning for."   Little did anyone know exactly what was in store for them once they set off on this journey that would ultimately leave Roosevelt at death's doorway.

Millard has done a fine job here, using a number of primary sources which include the journals of other expedition members to give a more rounded view of not only events but of the Amazon itself.  Her writing about the flora, fauna, and people indigenous to the area become integral to the story of the expedition as the group moves further into uncharted territory.  She also realizes that this is not solely Teddy Roosevelt's story; indeed it is probable that no one would have survived had it not been for Colonel Rondon.  Throughout his many years of working in the Brazilian wilderness, Rondon had become a devoted and dedicated advocate for the country's indigenous people; Millard notes that even when attacked by them, Rondon's men had orders to never retaliate.   Rondon left gifts for them instead, and although his peaceful tactics toward the Cinta Larga people was an issue of debate between Roosevelt and the Colonel, it seems that it worked, as the expedition, which could have been decimated "by consensus" of the tribe, was allowed to continue on down the river.

Roosevent and Rondon; photo from the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Dickinson State University

While the book is informative,  the way Candice Millard wrote it also offers readers a suspenseful narrative as to how they survived, as the back-cover blurb reveals,
"an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks." 
I am focused on people in whatever I read, and here, when it comes right down to it,  the question becomes this: when at a point of no return where things are at their worst, what is it within people that allows them to carry on?  In that sense, The River of Doubt is not just about the physical journey made by these men, but a sort of journey of self-discovery as well. 

At times a true white knuckler, The River of Doubt makes for compelling, page-turning reading. And don't miss the PBS American Experience episode "Into the Amazon" which brings this book and this expedition to life. I am a huge fan of Amazon exploration narratives, and this one is definitely high on my list of good ones. 

very much recommended