Cover image for Race against time : a reporter reopens the unsolved murder cases of the civil rights era
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Race against time : a reporter reopens the unsolved murder cases of the civil rights era
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9781451645132
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First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition.
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421 pages ; 24 cm
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"An award-winning investigative reporter shares the real-life detective story of how Klansmen came to justice in notorious unsolved civil rights cold cases--decades after they had gotten away with murder"--
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Summary

Summary

"For almost two decades, investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell doggedly pursued the Klansmen responsible for some of the most notorious murders of the civil rights movement. This book is his amazing story. Thanks to him, and to courageous prosecutors, witnesses, and FBI agents, justice finally prevailed." --John Grisham, author of The Guardians

On June 21, 1964, more than twenty Klansmen murdered three civil rights workers. The killings, in what would become known as the "Mississippi Burning" case, were among the most brazen acts of violence during the civil rights movement. And even though the killers' identities, including the sheriff's deputy, were an open secret, no one was charged with murder in the months and years that followed.

It took forty-one years before the mastermind was brought to trial and finally convicted for the three innocent lives he took. If there is one man who helped pave the way for justice, it is investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell.

In Race Against Time , Mitchell takes readers on the twisting, pulse-racing road that led to the reopening of four of the most infamous killings from the days of the civil rights movement, decades after the fact. His work played a central role in bringing killers to justice for the assassination of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and the Mississippi Burning case. Mitchell reveals how he unearthed secret documents, found long-lost suspects and witnesses, building up evidence strong enough to take on the Klan. He takes us into every harrowing scene along the way, as when Mitchell goes into the lion's den, meeting one-on-one with the very murderers he is seeking to catch. His efforts have put four leading Klansmen behind bars, years after they thought they had gotten away with murder.

Race Against Time is an astonishing, courageous story capturing a historic race for justice, as the past is uncovered, clue by clue, and long-ignored evils are brought into the light. This is a landmark book and essential reading for all Americans.


Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1989, investigative reporter Mitchell, as he mentions at the start of his superb first book, covered the premier of Mississippi Burning in Jackson, Miss. The film, about the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964, inspired him to write articles about those and three other civil rights murder cases. In the case of three civil rights workers depicted in the movie, Mitchell found that evidence was destroyed and state records sealed for 50 years. Still, he was able to provide new facts that finally put killer Edgar Ray Killen in prison four decades after the murders. He was also responsible for getting the cases of Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, and the four African-American girls who died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., reopened. All ended in convictions of Ku Klux Klan members. Under death threats, he raced against time to interview witnesses before they died and bring justice to families who had been denied it. As Mitchell points out in the epilogue, the fight for the truth continues with the recent rise of hate crimes in this country. This thrilling true crime account deserves a wide audience. Agent: David Black, David Black Agency. (Feb.)


Booklist Review

Award-winning journalist Mitchell began working for Mississippi's statewide newspaper The Clarion-Ledger in 1986 as the lowliest of reporters."" After a screening of Mississippi Burning, the 1988 film about the murders of three civil rights workers, he gets a tip that there was more to the story and that many of the responsible parties were free, living in Mississippi, and likely still active in the KKK. This starts Mitchell down a road of looking into some of the highest-profile crimes of the Civil Rights era. Starting with his own investigative work, he helps to reopen the murder cases of Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer; the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in which four girls died; and, 20 years later, the Mississippi Burning case. Mitchell's straightforward style suits the stories perfectly: neither the families' continued heartache nor the hate of those on trial need be embellished to be affecting. While the cases themselves are drawn out over many years, the reading, especially the extensive courtroom scenes, is riveting. A great readalike for Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice (2004), this is both an important Civil Rights document and a timely read in the wake of the recent rise of hate crimes.--Kathy Sexton Copyright 2020 Booklist


Kirkus Review

Fast-paced account of the slow path to justice in a series of racially motivated murder cases.Mitchell, a former reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger who recently founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, arrived in 1986 to a city "bursting with New South pride and Old South prejudice," one that, just a few years later, would be discomfited by the revival of interest in the "Mississippi Burning" case and like crimes of the 1950s and 1960s thanks to a movie by that name. Looking into that cold case, writes the author, "I had heard of people getting away with murder before, but I had never heard of twenty people getting away with murder at the same time"those 20 people had carried out the killings of civil rights activists in the name of white supremacy. In a Mississippi where Emmett Till's killers confessed to the crime but still walked free, an all-white jury had acquitted a notorious racist, Byron Beckwith, in the murder of Medgar Eversand Beckwith didn't pay a cent for his defense, the bill having been picked up by an eager "White Citizens' Council." Through dogged investigation, sifting through reams of evidence and interviewing those who were on the ground at the time, Mitchell helped inspire law enforcement officials decades after those events occurred to secure sufficient proof to convict killers who had been at liberty for most of their adult lives. Even though many of the civil rights killings have still gone unpunished, often because the perpetrators are dead, others were reckoned for, including the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, one perpetrator having long publicly bragged of having helped "blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham." That might have flown in the last days of Jim Crow, but, writes Mitchell, times have changed even in the segregationist stronghold of Philadelphia, Mississippi: "The town that had once protected these killers now wanted to see them prosecuted."A fine work of investigative journalism and an essential addition to the history of the civil rights movement. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

As reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, MS, from the 1980s through the 2010s, Mitchell's investigative reporting led to the reopening of some of the most notorious murder cases of the civil rights era, including new trials in Mississippi for the murders of Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, and in Alabama for the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. This memoir, with Mitchell often at the center of the story, covers the cases he investigated, each one ultimately leading to the long overdue conviction of the murderers. Mitchell is skilled at interviewing suspects and their accomplices, and the book includes chilling profiles of unrepentant Ku Klux Klan members. In looking back at each case, Michell demonstrates the ways that politicians and judges influenced the outcome of the original trials, and reminds us that the pursuit of justice has always been a political act. VERDICT While there are many other books that discuss these cases, Mitchell's active participation in the investigations provides a unique perspective. Recommended for readers interested in civil rights-era American history and legal nonfiction.--Nicholas Graham, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter 1 1 The Ford station wagon topped a hill before disappearing into the darkness. Mickey Schwerner drove, deep in thought. Fellow New Yorker Andy Goodman propped his body against the passenger door, drifting off to sleep. Mississippi native James Chaney, the lone African-American, swallowed hard, shifting in the backseat. Two cars and a pickup truck raced to catch up. Schwerner spotted them in his rearview mirror. "Uh-oh." The noise woke Goodman. "What is it? What do they want?" Schwerner rolled down the window and stuck out his arm, motioning for the car to pass. "Is it a cop?" Goodman gazed back. "I can't see." The car crunched into the wagon, and Schwerner wondered aloud if their pursuers were playing a joke. "They ain't playin'," Chaney said. "You better believe it." Metal and glass smashed again. "What are we going to do?" Goodman asked. Schwerner told his fellow civil rights workers to hold on. He jerked the wagon off the blacktop onto a dirt road, sending up a swirl of dust. His pursuers weren't shaken. Instead, they flipped on police lights and began to close the distance again. Schwerner spotted the crimson glow in his rearview mirror and cursed. "It is a cop." Goodman advised, "Better stop." "Okay, sit tight, you guys. Don't say anything. Let me talk." Schwerner turned to Chaney. "We'll be all right. Just relax." The wagon squeaked to a stop. Doors opened and slammed shut, interrupting a chorus of frogs. Flashlights bathed them in light. A Klansman with a crew cut told Schwerner, "Y'all think you can drive any speed you want around here?" "You had us scared to death, man," Schwerner replied. "Don't you call me 'man,' Jew-boy." "No, sir, what should I call you?" "Don't call me nothing, nigger-lovin' Jew-boy. You just listen." "Yes, sir." The crew cut moved closer to the driver and sniffed. "Hell, you're even startin' to smell like a nigger, Jew-boy." Schwerner reassured Goodman, "We'll be all right." "Sure you will, nigger lover." "He seen your face," a fellow Klansman advised. "That ain't good. You don't want him seein' your face." "Oh," the crew cut replied, "it don't make no difference no more." He pressed his pistol against Schwerner's temple and pulled the trigger. Blood spattered against Goodman. "Oh, shit, we're into it now, boys," one Klansman said. Three shots echoed in the night air. "You only left me a nigger, but at least I shot me a nigger," another Klansman said with a chuckle, joining a choir of laughter. Everything went dark. White letters spelled out on a black screen: "Mississippi, 1964." I was one of several dozen people watching the film Mississippi Burning tonight, squeezed inside a theater where coarse blue fabric covered metal chairs. Nothing distinguished this movie house from thousands of other multiplexes across America. Except, of course, that this was not just any place. This was Mississippi--a place where some of the nation's poorest people live on some of the world's richest soil, a place with the nation's highest illiteracy rate and some of the world's greatest writers. Decades earlier, Mississippi had bragged in tourist brochures about being "The Hospitality State." What it failed to mention was it led the nation in the lynchings of African-Americans between the Civil War and the civil rights movement. Through newspaper photographs and television news, Americans had witnessed the brutality in Mississippi for themselves. In spring 1963, they saw police dogs attack civil rights workers in Greenwood. Months later, they observed the trail of blood left by NAACP leader Medgar Evers when he was assassinated in the driveway of his Jackson home. During the summer of 1964, Americans watched sailors tromp through swamps in search of the three missing civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, who were last seen leaving the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. For forty-four days, the drama unfolded before the nation. Mississippi's US senator Jim Eastland told President Lyndon B. Johnson that he believed the missing trio were part of a "publicity stunt," and Mississippi governor Paul Johnson Jr. suggested they " could be in Cuba." Days before the FBI unearthed their bodies on August 4, 1964, the governor spoke at the Neshoba County Fair, just two miles from that grisly discovery. He told the cheering crowd there were hundreds of people missing in Harlem, and "somebody ought to find them." The killings came to define what the world thought of Mississippi, and no subsequent events had dislodged it by the time I came here in 1986 as the lowliest of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper The Clarion-Ledger . I arrived the day before my twenty-seventh birthday, the same day the paper carried a story about the burial of Senator Eastland, the longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who had bragged about having extra pockets sewn into his jacket to kill all those civil rights bills. The days of Jim Crow had long passed when I drove into this capital city of nearly 200,000 with my wife and our baby daughter. Jackson was bursting with New South pride and Old South prejudice, but doing its best to conceal the latter. I had been here three years now, from 1986 to 1989, and put thousands of miles on my Honda hatchback in that time, trying to find my feet as a reporter while trying to understand this beautiful and haunted state. When I first heard Mississippians refer to "the War," I thought they were talking about Vietnam--only to discover they meant their great-grandfathers' Civil War, which their descendants, it seemed, had never stopped fighting. At my desk, I had read the January 9, 1989, issue of Time magazine, which featured the Mississippi Burning movie on the cover. Jackson had been abuzz about the film since last spring, when some residents complained about "Hollywood liberals" invading their town. Disdain turned to curiosity when word spread that actor Gene Hackman had been spotted at Hal and Mal's, a popular pub and eatery. Lunch crowds doubled. I was curious, too, about this movie and how it would impact Mississippi. I had volunteered to cover its state premiere at a January 10 press screening. At The Clarion-Ledger , the statewide medium-sized newspaper, I felt like little more than a rookie. And tonight's assignment seemed like a welcome break from the court beat, where I faced the daily battle of getting scooped by my more talented rival at the Jackson Daily News , Beverly Pettigrew Kraft. I could hardly count it as a victory that she wasn't in attendance. This was, after all, a minor story. But I hadn't counted on the attendance of the man sitting next to me at the screening. After the opening scene, his voice startled me, deep and resonant. "That's not accurate," he said, gesturing up at the title card. He leaned over and explained that it was Chaney, not Schwerner, who was the driver that night. As the night wore on, I learned just how much he knew. His voice blended with the images on-screen. After a young African-American witnessed KKK violence, FBI agents in the film concealed his identity with a cardboard box, driving him around Neshoba County to look for his attackers. The man next to me leaned my way and said, "That really happened." When the house lights came on, I asked what he thought of the movie. "It's fiction, all right," the white-haired man replied, explaining that the movie had fictionalized how the FBI had solved the case. I jotted down his words on a legal pad I was carrying, and I began to chat with the man, who had firsthand knowledge of the case. Roy K. Moore was the retired special agent in charge of the FBI in Mississippi, which investigated the June 21, 1964, killings we had just seen reenacted on-screen. I was grateful he had come, allowing me to tie Hollywood to the real history in tomorrow's newspaper. Moore turned to speak to the two men behind us. They included Jim Ingram, a six-foot-four Oklahoma native who had been involved in the investigation and headed the FBI's civil rights desk in Mississippi, and veteran journalist Bill Minor, who had covered the killings and invited the pair here. While the rest of the press left, I lingered and listened to these old men, wondering why my history teachers had failed to mention these events in class. I peppered the men with questions about the case. They told me that more than twenty Klansmen had taken these three young men out to a dark, remote road and executed them. They said locals knew these suspects, yet no one turned them in. The perpetrators kept working and walking the streets as if they had been caught speeding, rather than carrying out a triple murder. "No one was ever prosecuted for murder?" I asked. "Nobody," Moore replied. I had heard of people getting away with murder before, but I had never heard of twenty people getting away with murder at the same time--no less, in a case that made headlines around the globe. They had shot to death these three young men, and the state of Mississippi had done nothing about it. How was that possible? Even now, the former investigators seemed at a loss to explain it. Mississippi Burning became one of the nation's most controversial films. Critic Roger Ebert called it "the best film of 1988," saying it makes "an important statement about a time and a condition that should not be forgotten." But veterans of the civil rights movement bashed the movie for turning agents from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI into heroes while portraying activists as cowards. The bickering blazed hotter in Mississippi than anywhere else. Crowds flocked to the film, some to be entertained and some to be outraged. Mississippi governor Ray Mabus, who had Hollywood good looks to go with his Harvard University education, appeared on the Today show and spoke to the National Press Club. "The message I don't want people thinking is, 'That's Mississippi today.' The message I do want them coming out with is how far Mississippi has come. I know that there are things in our past that everybody would like to change--in all of our pasts--but we can't affect that. What we can affect is the future." As I wrapped up my story on the film premiere, I sought a comment from Mabus's office, telephoning his press secretary, Kevin Vandenbroek. He echoed the party line about the film: "A mixed blessing. If there's a silver lining, it gives Mississippi a chance to say, 'That was then' and, 'This is what's going on now.'?" But there was something else he wanted to say. He asked to go off the record, and I agreed. An award-winning radio and TV reporter before taking his current job, Vandenbroek couldn't resist sharing a little advice. "Have you ever thought about the case, the real murders being revisited?" "No," I said. "You know it's not too late. Bill Baxley, the attorney general over in Alabama, prosecuted some Klan cases back in the seventies. Went after those bastards that blew up those four girls in the Birmingham church." "I didn't know that. How can you--?" "I thought you were a court reporter." "I am." "Aren't you forgetting something?" "What's that?" "There is no statute of limitations for murder." Excerpted from Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era by Jerry Mitchell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


Table of Contents

Part I James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner Chapters 1-8p. 1
Part II Medgar Evers Chapters 9-28p. 47
Part III Vernon Dahmer Sr. Chapters 29-44p. 151
Part IV Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley Chapters 45-52p. 219
Part V James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner Chapters 53-82p. 259
Epiloguep. 383
Acknowledgmentsp. 387
A Note on Sourcesp. 393
Notesp. 395
Selected Bibliographyp. 403
Indexp. 409