Kathleen Parker

As the world weighs in against media hubris, often well-deserved, it's bracing to note some of the good that gets done on the fringes in the name of principle rather than in the klieg-seeking interest of self-acclaim.

Meet Jerry Mitchell, 45, investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., the man whose 16-year personal mission is largely credited for the upcoming trial of the man charged with murdering three civil rights workers 40 years ago.

Thanks to Mitchell's labors - and to others he insists deserve much credit - state authorities have charged Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, a sawmill operator and preacher, with the 1964 murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.

Killen, 79, is the first person ever charged with the murders, though he and others were tried in 1967 on federal conspiracy charges in the killings. Killen walked.

The story of the three victims, who were part of Freedom Summer's drive to register black voters, is familiar by now. Mitchell's story may be less so.

It is fair to say that without Mitchell's dogged and often courageous reporting, not to mention an apparently beguiling charm that convinces people they should share secret records with him, many murders from the civil rights era would have remained unvindicated, locked forever in the vaults of regional amnesia.

Mitchell's sense of himself in these events comes footnoted with an "aw shucks" disclaimer. An unabashed Christian, he declines to accept credit for some of the miracles that have resulted in justice - the precise ratcheting of seemingly unrelated parts, the stunning timing of random events, the fortuitous encounters and serendipitous discoveries.

"It's been a matter of faith for me throughout this whole thing," he says in a soft drawl. "God's hand is in it. It doesn't make sense otherwise."

Mitchell's crusade, if we may now use that word, was the result of an epiphany in 1989 when he saw the movie "Mississippi Burning" with Bill Minor, another civil rights reporter and mentor now in his 80s, and two FBI agents. The four sat around after the movie and dissected it for accuracy.

Those few hours constituted a transformative event in Mitchell's life.

"I frankly was just stupid," he says. "My attitude was, 'What? This really happened? I can't believe this really happened.' It was true 20/20 hindsight, but it was so abundantly clear what happened. People got away with murder."

That recognition stuck in Mitchell's craw, and he started digging into the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the state organization that worked covertly to aid and abet America's native jihadists, the Ku Klux Klan.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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