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

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