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Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell remembers when Edgar Ray Killen, the man who ordered the 1964 killings of three civil rights Freedom Riders, walked Mitchell to his car after a meeting. "I could see he was memorizing my license plate number, making it possible for him to get my home address," Mitchell recalled in his Lovejoy Award acceptance speech on September 17.
He remembers a sheriff telling him he might want to think about driving home a different way.
He remembers Byron de la Beckwith saying to him, "If God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for him."
Ultimately the punishment fell upon De La Beckwith-the first of four Ku Klux Klansman to be brought to justice thanks to Mitchell's investigative reporting at The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss. "[They] tried to stop me, but the truth was, I wasn't going to stop," Mitchell told the audience in Lorimer Chapel.
For his courageous pursuit of justice in the face of threats, Mitchell received an honorary degree and the award, which is given annually in memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Colby Class of 1826, who died defending his printing press against a pro-slavery mob.
Mitchell was just a boy when the KKK killings took place. But in 1989, when he was a young court reporter, a source provided him documents that showed that the civil rights era trial of De La Beckwith for the murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers had been corrupt-that a state commission in Mississippi had secretly been working to acquit him.
"A quarter century had passed since Evers had been assassinated, but his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, had never stopped loving him and did all she could to keep his story alive. After my story appeared, she asked authorities to reopen her husband's case," Mitchell recalled.
Four years later De La Beckwith was convicted and sent to prison. "And so began my journey into the unpunished killings of the civil rights era, and what's happened since has been amazing," Mitchell said.
Mitchell's work has led to the trials and convictions of three other Ku Klux Klansmen: Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, for ordering the firebombing that killed the NAACP's Vernon Dahmer in 1966; Bobby Cherry, for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley; and Edgar Ray Killen, for orchestrating the 1964 killings of Freedom Riders Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.
After all that he has endured in the pursuit of these stories, and after realizing these successes, Mitchell has maintained his humility. "Justice has come in some cases not because of my work, but because the cause is great and because there are many others greater than me who have taken up that cause," he said. "Too often we as Americans think of change as something accomplished only by rugged individualists. The truth is, change comes when many unite in a common cause to change a people and a place."