Jerry Mitchell was 4 years old in 1963 when Medgar Evers pulled his baby blue Oldsmobile into the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, and stepped out carrying an armful of "Jim Crow Must Go" T-shirts. An assassin lurked in the shadows, aiming a high-powered rifle through a tangle of honeysuckle, angling for a clear shot.
Forty-two years later, on a gray, misty afternoon, Mitchell is standing on the spot--hallowed ground, he calls it--where Evers dragged his body, leaving smears of blood, as he struggled to reach the front stoop. When Mitchell talks about the slain civil rights leader, he sounds as if he is speaking of his own next of kin.
A single bullet blasted through Evers' chest and shattered a pane of glass over there, Mitchell is saying, pointing to a window in the house. It smashed through a wall, hit the refrigerator and landed on a kitchen counter. He moves to where 8-year-old Reena begged, "Get up, daddy," as the NAACP field secretary lay face down, life draining away. Mitchell directs my eyes across the street, to where the assassin tossed the gun before fleeing into the darkness.
Byron De La Beckwith, known to brag of his Ku Klux Klan exploits, might have lived out his years a free man if Mitchell had not grown up to be a crack investigative reporter with a pit bull ferocity and a penchant for tracking killers from the most violent days of the civil rights era.
Thanks to new evidence in secret documents leaked to Mitchell, the long-stalled case was reopened in October 1989. Beckwith, 73, was indicted for Evers' murder 14 months later. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison; he died after serving nearly seven years.
The unrepentant Beckwith was the first KKK hit man that Mitchell, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, helped put behind bars. He would not be the last.
His most recent target was Edgar Ray Killen, 80, a Baptist minister and former Klan leader indicted in January for a triple killing in 1964 that stunned the nation. Killen, the alleged point man in the conspiracy, is the first person charged with the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, civil rights workers whose bodies were found under tons of earth at a dam in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Mitchell's reporting helped build the case against Killen.
The mild-mannered, Bible-quoting journalist has given new definition to historical investigative reporting, digging back in time to document unsolved crimes. Dredging up Mississippi's violent past has been a major part of Mitchell's beat since 1989.
The reporter has uncovered long-forgotten FBI records, yellowed court documents and flawed investigations by inept local authorities, often with Klan ties. He has smoked out witnesses on the back roads of Mississippi and pieced together crime scenes through detailed interviewing and tedious research. He even gets suspected murderers to join him for dinner.
Mitchell once sat across from Killen and his wife in a Walnut Grove, Mississippi, restaurant, enjoying an $8.95, all-you-can-eat catfish dinner, then wrote stories that helped get Killen indicted. He declined an invitation to Killen's home, opting for a public meeting place "to be on the safe side."
His character as a pesky reporter has been immortalized in "Ghosts of Mississippi," Hollywood's version of the reopening of the Evers case. When he spoke at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in 2000, he was introduced as "the South's Simon Wiesenthal," a reference to the indefatigable Nazi hunter.
Over the years, his work has drawn high praise. Journalist and author David Halberstam labels Mitchell, 46, "an American hero" for tackling an important story and staying with it. When Mitchell was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize this year, Halberstam, who covered the civil rights movement for Nashville's Tennessean, wrote a letter on his behalf. "It's great journalism and great personal witness," Halberstam told me. "There's something extraordinary about him."
Hailed by colleagues as dogged and courageous, Mitchell also has been cursed as a "white traitor." Earlier this year, a letter to the editor suggested …