09/22/2009

Journalist Inspired by SPLC's Civil Rights Memorial Receives 'Genius Award'

A Mississippi journalist who was inspired by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial to investigate unsolved civil rights murders is among the 24 recipients of a $500,000 "genius award" announced today by the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation.

Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger, will receive the no-strings-attached grant in $100,000 annual payments over five years. The MacArthur fellows include artists, writers and scientists the foundation believes show the ability to use their gifts to improve the world.

Mitchell credits the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial in 1989, and the SPLC book Free At Last, published to complement the Memorial, as the instruments of justice that prompted him to investigate the unsolved cases, starting with the 1963 assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medger Evers.

"Free At Last became a roadmap for me on my journey into these cases," Mitchell said. "The Memorial and this book helped to ensure that although time passed, these martyrs were never forgotten."

Mitchell's extensive reporting was key to successful prosecutions:

• In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith went to prison for life for the Evers killing.

• In 1998, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers was sentenced to life in prison for killing Vernon Dahmer.

• In 2001 and 2002, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry went to prison for life for planting a bomb in a Birmingham church that killed Addie Mae Colllins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.

• In 2003, Ernest Avants was sentenced to life for killing Ben Chester White.

• And in 2005, Edgar Ray Killen went to prison for 60 years for helping orchestrate the killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

All of those victims are among the 40 civil rights martyrs listed on the SPLC's Civil Rights Memorial.

"Since 1989, I have dedicated my life to tracking down these unpunished killers, these terrorists who committed these brutal and cowardly acts," he said. "It has not been an easy journey. There were many people who wanted me to stop, including friends, family and fellow journalists."

Mitchell was the keynote speaker when the SPLC dedicated its Civil Rights Memorial Center in October 2005.

Mitchell said he would use the MacArthur grant to continue his work on unsolved civil rights era crimes and complete a book. He said he would likely take periodic breaks from The Clarion-Ledger, although his findings would be published in the pages of the paper that has employed him since 1986.