Elijah Lovejoy Convocation Address

Jerry W. Mitchell. <i>Jackson Clarion-Ledger</i>

 
September 17, 2006
Listen to Jerry Mitchell's address (98.5 MB)

Thank you very much, President Adams. I guess I should say “Bro.” My nickname is Boo, so he’s entitled to call me that as well. I welcome the students here and faculty of Colby College. It’s truly humbling.

"I don’t know of a better list of previous winners than there are for the Elijah P. Lovejoy Award. So many are my personal heroes..."

There are many awards in the reporting profession, but I don’t know of a better list of previous winners than there are for the Elijah P. Lovejoy Award. So many are my personal heroes — David Halberstam, Bill Kovach, Sidney Schanberg, Gene Roberts, Katherine Graham and Ralph McGill— just to name a few. They epitomize what journalism is all about. That why it means so much to me.

I consider it my privilege to be here at Colby —my first time in Maine, by the way, and, yes, I did have lobster — to be here to celebrate the courage and conscience of Elijah Lovejoy, a journalist who refused to stand by and allow injustices against slaves to go unchallenged, a journalist who would not be silenced, despite a mob’s threats.

He became the first martyr for freedom of the press in this country, and what he did demonstrates that no liberty comes without great cost. What he did reminds us of the sacrifices of so many others, particularly during a time known as the civil rights movement.

I recently visited the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, which stands as a reminder of 40 martyrs whose lives were stolen by hate. Young girls Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson had their Sunday dresses on and ribbons in their hair when a bomb planted outside their church ripped them apart one late summer morning in 1963. Three years later, Vernon Dahmer, and NAACP leader in Mississippi, who fought his whole life for the right to vote, was sleeping with his family when firebombs crashed through the windows. Klansmen fired inside the house, and he grabbed his shotgun and ran to the front of the house and began firing back so his family could escape out a back window. Flames from the fire seared his lungs, and he died later that day. A few weeks later, his family received in the mail his voter registration card. He died before he was ever able to cast a ballot. In the steamy summer of 1964 in Mississippi, domestic terrorists slinked through the night and kidnapped three civil rights workers: James Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. Klansmen shot those three young men before digging a deep pit out of the Mississippi red clay and burying their bodies, hoping they’d never be found.

In each of these cases, their killers walked free, even though everyone knew they were guilty.

The mob that killed Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner believed they had silenced the trio — just as the mob in 1837, I’m sure, believed they had silenced Elijah Lovejoy. Both mobs found out they were wrong because courage can never be silenced.

"A quarter century had passed since [Medgar] 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."

Not long ago I stopped by Chaney’s grave in Meridian, Mississippi, and the words there struck me: “There are those who are alive, yet will never live; those who are dead, yet will live forever. Great deeds inspire and encourage the living.”

In 1989, I became interested in the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. It was a state segregationist spy agency that was headed by the governor, no less. I ended up getting a source who leaked the secret records to me which showed that at the same time the state of Mississippi was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, this other arm of the state, the sovereignty commission headed by the governor, was secretly assisting Beckwith’s defense, trying to get him acquitted.

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.

At the time, the odds were literally more than a million to one against the case being reprosecuted. All of the evidence was missing. There was no transcript, no murder weapon, nothing of any value left.

But Myrlie Evers believed, and she prayed.

Then some amazing things happened. A few months later, Jackson police were cleaning out a closet when they found a box that containing the crime scene photos of the killing of Medgar Evers, including the fingerprint of Byron De La Beckwith, lifted from the murder weapon. A few months after that , Myrlie Evers shared with me her copy of the old court transcript she had saved in a safety deposit box. Not long after that, Bobby DeLaughter, who prosecuted the case, found the murder weapon in his father-in-law’s closet. It sounds impossible, but in short, everything that needed to happen for Beckwith to be prosecuted did happen. Fourteen months after I wrote my first stories, Beckwith was indicted for murder. A little more than three years later, he went to prison.

And so began my journey into the unpunished killings of the civil rights era, and what’s happened since has been amazing. In 1998, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers went to prison for life for ordering the murder of Vernon Dahmer in 1966. In 1999, James Caston, Charles Caston, Hal Crimm and Joe Oliver Watson were all found guilty of helping a white mob beat to death a one-armed sharecropper named Rainey Pool. In 2001 and 2002, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were convicted for planting the bomb in a Birmingham church that killed the four little girls. In 2003, Ernest Avants went to prison for life for killing Ben Chester White. And last year, Edgar Ray Killen went to prison for helping orchestrate the killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

These Klansmen were not the only ones who went behind bars. Since 1989, authorities in seven states have reexamined 29 different killings from the civil rights era and made 27 arrests, leading to 22 convictions.

Like Elijah Lovejoy, I have been inspired by the strength, courage and nobility of those whose names don’t appear in college history textbooks -- people who toiled in the civil rights movement in Mississippi like C.C. Bryant, who had his church and barbershop blown up repeatedly and yet he continued on in his fight. Clyde Kennard, who was sentenced to prison for seven years on trumped up charges of stealing chicken feed — and I literally mean chicken feed. The real reason he was arrested was because he dared to try and enroll at an all-white university in Mississippi. This past April, a quarter century later, Kennard finally had his name cleared by the Mississippi courts.

Other than the work of a few journalists such as Hodding Carter, Hazel Brannon Smith, Bill Minor and Ira Harkey, there wasn’t much room for real journalism in Mississippi during the civil rights era in Mississippi, especially at the newspaper I work for, The Clarion-Ledger, which the Columbia Journalism Review called the worst newspaper in America in 1968.

I’m not sure the magazine should have been that kind. In the 1950s and 1960s, the paper campaigned to preserve segregation and referred to civil rights activists as “communists” and “chimpanzees,” prompting some in the African-American community to call my newspaper “The Klan-Ledger.” A day after Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the headline in The Clarion-Ledger read, “Trash Taken Out in Washington.”

"Some people, including friends of mine, wanted to me stop. One letter to the editor said I should be 'tarred, … feathered and run out' of Mississippi. It’s always nice to know you have someone who’ll help you pack."

When violence, aided by such rabble rousing, took place in Mississippi, the Clarion-Ledger sought to put the blame elsewhere. After Beckwith was arrested for killing the NAACP leader, the headline read, “Californian Arrested in Evers Murder,” overlooking the fact that Beckwith, while he had been born in California, had lived in Mississippi almost his whole life.

Rea Hederman, Gannett and others helped see to many positive changes by the newspaper by the time I arrived in 1986. Unfortunately, however, one of the top people at The Clarion-Ledger opposed my reporting about these brutal and unpunished crimes that brought shame to the state’s name. I kept expecting to come in one morning to find my computer gone, my cubicle disassembled and me heading back to my hometown, in my hometown, Texarkana, typing obits.

Some people, including friends of mine, wanted to me stop. One letter to the editor said I should be “tarred, … feathered and run out” of Mississippi. It’s always nice to know you have someone who’ll help you pack.

The term has fallen out of favor, but I think of myself as a muckraker. In the early 20th century, muckrakers helped bring voting rights to women, exposed unsanitary conditions in slaughterhouses and helped end child labor. So if anyone calls me a muckraker, I simply say, “Why, thank you.”

My entire family, especially my wife, Karen, has been supportive of me. But when she was eight months’ pregnant in April 1990, she questioned my sanity when I told her I was leaving to interview Byron De La Beckwith, the man who shot NAACP leader Medgar Evers in the back and watched him crawl across the carport to die in front of his wife and three young children.

Beckwith had never put two and two together to realize that I was the one whose stories had gotten the case reopened and I didn’t fill him in on that point That’s why my wife was questioning my sanity. She felt Beckwith knew already and was setting me up for the kill.

I spent six hours with this evil man in his home in Signal Mountain, Tenn., which is just outside Chattanooga -- a beautiful place when the sun’s going down, unless you happen to be watching it with Byron De La Beckwith. He insisted on walking me to the car, and I’m like, “Really, that’s all right. I think I can find my way.”

He walked me out to the car anyway and told me, “If you write positive things about white Caucasian Christians, God will bless you. If you write negative things about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. If God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for him.”

His wife had made me a sandwich. I think you can guess what I did with the sandwich.

Beckwith’s wife, Thelma, was just as racist as he was. There’s a nearby mountain called Lookout Mountain and she was telling me how the blacks (of course never used the word “blacks”) had been burned out of their homes to keep the nearby Lookout Mountain all white. Not many months after Beckwith was arrested, I went on vacation, and when I got back to my office, I had a message on my voice mail from Thelma. She had tried to call me person to person (which I guess people don’t do that much anymore), and I could hear her conversation with the operator on voice mail. The operator says to her, “He’s not here, ma’am. Would you like to leave a message?”

“Why, yes, I would,” she said. “You just tell him to go to hell.”

In 1994, two days after Beckwith was convicted, I got a call from the sheriff telling me that when they took Beckwith away, he kept saying two words.

“Two words?” I asked.

“Yes, two words, over and over again.” the sheriff said.

“What two words?”

“Jerry Mitchell.”

For a while I felt pretty good about it — until the sheriff continued: “Now when you drive home, Jerry, you may want to go a different way …”

While pursuing the case against Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, a white supremacist told me, “You think we’re going to let you go unscathed. I know where you live. You’re an idiot. You’re a traitor. I know your wife’s name and your children’s names.” He told me he had photographs of us.

After I told my wife about this, she had me call the FBI immediately. They investigated, and it turned out the guy who called me was from South Carolina. So I figured, “At least he’s got a ways to drive.”

In early 1999, I took the man who helped organize the Klan’s killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner out for catfish. Heaping up plate after plate of bones, Edgar Ray Killen talked of that day, June 21, 1964, when three young men were brutally executed. He called them “communists.” But insisted he had nothing to do with their deaths. Asked what should happen to those responsible for these killings, he told me, “I’m not going to say they were wrong.”

He then shared this story about himself: After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, April 4, 1968, the FBI had no idea who was responsible. Two agents showed up at Killen’s doorstep. When he refused to talk, they left their card behind. Time went on, and Killen called the agent, wanting to know who killed King.

The agent asked, “Why do you want to know?”

Killen says, “Man, I want to shake his hand.”

"For those of you who are interested in journalism or simply want to make a difference in your community, my advice to you is the same advice Winston Churchill once gave: 'Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in.'"

To see this footage on TV of these old guys and it’s easy to think, “Aw, those poor old guys. Why don’t they leave them alone.” But what we’re really talking about here is young killers who simply have gotten old.

When dinner ended, Killen followed me out to my car and then walked past me. And then I realized what he was doing. He stood there behind my hatchback Honda, and I could see he was memorizing my license plate number, making it possible for him to get my home address.

He and other Klansmen tried to stop me, but the truth was, I wasn’t going to stop. For those of you who are interested in journalism or simply want to make a difference in your community, my advice to you is the same advice Winston Churchill once gave: “Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in.”

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.

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. In 2004 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a multi-racial group of dozens of citizens came together and helped families successfully push for prosecution of the killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. That’s also what happened in the 1960s when thousands of students and others from Maine and many other places came to the South to play a part in the civil rights movement.

I don’t need to tell you that these are dark days for journalism, days when celebrity trivia passes for major news, days when public support for the press has sunk to an all-time low, days when people refuse to believe what they read in their newspapers but believe any babble they hear on talk radio or read in somebody’s blog.

To make matters worse, what’s happening to the press in America these days sounds like we’re talking about some totalitarian nation — military leaders detaining media members, courts subpoenaing reporters, journalists going to jail for refusing to reveal their sources to government officials.

Despite all this bad news, there is good news.

The good news is good journalism doesn’t wait on public opinion in order to make a difference. John Peter Zenger didn’t wait for libel laws to be changed before he printed the truth. Elijah Lovejoy didn’t wait for slavery laws to be changed before exposing injustices. Edward R. Murrow didn’t wait for the Senate to police its own before challenging the claims of Joseph McCarthy.

Murrow’s words to the nation seem more appropriate today than they did a half-century ago:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. … This is no time for men … to keep silent …. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

Murrow would certainly agree that we in the press bear responsibility for the ways we cover the news. We cannot let the public’s fascination with celebrity overwhelm what’s important. We must never test the public’s pulse to determine what stories we should publish. And we must never give in to those trying to thwart our attempts to expose the truth.

My hope is all of us — especially those of you pursuing careers in journalism — can help us restore our profession to its rightful place as a fierce watchdog against oppressive government, a bright and clear beacon for truth and, most importantly, an unyielding, energized, relentless advocate of justice for all Americans.

My prayer is, no matter where we find ourselves, we can all take solace, strength and courage from the lives of Elijah Lovejoy and so many others, and like James Chaney’s tombstone inscription says, that our deeds will live forever. That our deeds will live forever.

Thank you so much.