Watchdogs and racing against time


Mary Thomas Watts - Contributing columnist



Reading bookends my days. I start the morning with newspapers, including this one, and turn in for the night with a book.

I’m picky. I rely on news sources that adhere to their profession’s code of ethics, and I favor books, fiction and nonfiction, that are well crafted, entertaining, and thought provoking. Whatever I read, short and long form, nearly always sheds new light on some aspect of what it means to be part of the human family.

But it’s the rare read that delivers as much, page for page, as the book local readers chose for Clinton County Reads 2022, award-winning journalist Jerry Mitchell’s acclaimed “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era.”

Mitchell joined the staff of the Jackson, Miss. Clarion Ledger in 1986, when many Mississippians believed it was time to leave the brutal, racially motivated crimes of the past in the past.

But after watching the movie, “Mississippi Burning,” about the 1964 murders of Freedom Summer voter registration volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, in Neshoba County, Mitchell set out to learn what had become of those responsible.

Retired FBI agent Roy K. Moore, who had worked the Neshoba County case, gave Mitchell his worn copy of Don Whitehead’s “Attack on Terror: The FBI Versus the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi,” and said, “Those guys got away with murder. It’s not too late.”

I read Whitehead’s book when it was published, in 1970. At the time, I was a year out of journalism school and working as city editor of a small daily newspaper in Northeast Mississippi. In spite of the book’s documentation of the Klan’s ubiquitous tentacles, nothing prepared me for the morning I was waiting for the sheriff in his office and saw his signature on KKK documents on his desk.

Jerry Mitchell’s “Race Against Time” weaves the elements of memoir, true crime, and Civil Rights era history, setting them in the moral arc of justice pursued and realized, to tell a story the Southern Review of Books called “‘Spotlight’ meets ‘All the President’s Men.’”

Its themes are also hauntingly current, given our country’s unabated racism, the rise of white nationalist and Christian Identity movements, and efforts to discredit the press at home and censor it abroad.

Local newspapers are democracy’s frontline watchdogs, giving their readers timely and reliable information, without favor to the powerful.

But as television legal analyst Beth Karas and Ohio Innocence Project director Mark Godsey kept pointing out during their conversation at the recent kickoff for Clinton County Reads 2022, too many newspapers no longer have the staff or financial resources to support investigative journalism.

As a result, Lord only knows what manner of corruption, incompetence, neglect, malfeasance, and outright criminality in the public and private sectors goes unreported.

That’s why we news consumers must do what we can to support good journalism.

Subscribe to the print edition of your local newspaper and the online edition of at least one national or international print outlet.

Donate to investigative journalism organizations. (I’m partial to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, founded and directed by Jerry Mitchell, but there are many others worthy of your support.)

Give an aspiring journalism student a copy of “Race Against Time.”

And when you see our local journalists out in the community, thank them for their work.

Clinton County Reads programming continues with a free screening of “Ghosts of Mississippi,” at 6:30 p.m., on April 6, at the Murphy Theatre. The film features one of the cases Mitchell helped reopen, that of Byron De La Beckwith, who murdered Medgar Evers in 1963 and was convicted in 1994.

Author Jerry Mitchell will speak, via Zoom, at the Murphy Theatre, at 6:30 p.m., on April 12. A social hour with free refreshments and a cash bar starts at 5:30 p.m. To watch the program online, you can find a link on the county’s public libraries’ websites.

Mary Thomas Watts is a member of the Clinton County Reads Steering Committee.

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Mary Thomas Watts

Contributing columnist