Two notable civil rights figures will visit Chattanooga this September — Reena Evers Everette, daughter of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers; and Jerry Mitchell, the investigative reporter who helped put Evers' killer in prison.
Mitchell first rose to fame during the late 1980s while working at The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where he was able to unearth new evidence leading to the conviction of Evers' murderer, Signal Mountain resident Byron De La Beckwith.
On June 12, 1963, De La Beckwith drove to Evers' home in Jackson, where he shot him in the back while standing in his driveway. De La Beckwith was arrested about 10 days later, and put on trial twice the next year — both times avoiding conviction, as the all-white juries were unable to form a unanimous verdict.
About 26 years later, on October 1, 1989, The Clarion Ledger published the first of many articles written by Mitchell on the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission (MSC), which he describes as "a segregation spy agency run by the governor."
The MSC was "kind of a state equivalent of the White Citizens' Council," says Mitchell. The Commission operated from the 1950s to the 70s, when the Mississippi legislature voted to disband the agency and seal the records for 50 years.
"I was able to develop sources who had access to those sealed files," he says. "What they showed was, at the same time the state of Mississippi was prosecuting De La Beckwith for murder, this other arm of the state, the MSC, was secretly trying to get Beckwith acquitted — and the documents showed that."
As a result of the post-trial findings, Evers' wife, Myrlie Evers, asked that the case be reopened. Mitchell interviewed De La Beckwith several times before his third indictment in December of 1990, and still remembers him as "the most racist person I've ever spent time with." On February 5, 1994 — more than 30 years from the time of Evers' murder — De La Beckwith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2001.
Mitchell says those who attend the CBA event this fall can expect to hear additional details on this and Mitchell's other high-profile cases, and participate in group discussions asking, "Where do we go from here?"
"We keep repeating our history because we don't know our history," says Mitchell. "There have been strides made. But it seems like in race relations, for whatever reason, if we take a step forward, we take a couple steps back. There seems to be a real lack of understanding for others, I sense."
The 1994 conviction paved the way to revisit other civil rights cold cases. Since then, Mitchell says there have been 24 convictions as a result of investigative journalism. His own work brought three additional convictions.
"When Byron De La Beckwith was convicted, and the word 'guilty' was said, it was like you could hear waves of joy cascade down the hall until it reached a foyer of people," Mitchell says. "I just felt chills because the impossible had suddenly become possible."
Evers' family also shared in that justice and relief, he says. At the time, Myrlie Evers described hearing the guilty verdict as "feeling like every ounce of hate that she had went out of every pore of her body at that moment."
Mitchell is also the author of "Race Against Time," founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and a daily contributor to "On This Day in Civil Rights History" on various media outlets.
Jerry Mitchell in Conversation with Reena Evers-Everette
* When: September 20, 2023
* Where: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Auditorium
* Presented by: The Chattanooga Bar Association, The Chattanooga Bar Foundation and The S.L. Hutchins Bar Association
* Sponsors: UTC's Division of Diversity & Engagement, Department of Political Science & Public Service, and Department of Communications
* More information: Chattanoogabar.org