Jerry Mitchell Jr., an investigative reporter with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, has won more than twenty national journalism awards and is credited with writing the stories that led to new arrests in multiple civil rights cases dating back to the 1960s.
Mitchell was born in 1959 in Springfield, Missouri, and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1982 from Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, and a master’s in 1997 from Ohio State University, where he attended the Kiplinger Reporting Program. He married Karen O’Donaghy in 1983, and they have two children, Katherine and Sam. Mitchell began working as a journalist as an editor of his high school newspaper and continued as a columnist and news editor on his college paper, but he did not become interested in investigative journalism until he became a reporter at the Hot Springs (Arkansas) Sentinel-Record, where he exposed a theme park scandal. He joined the Clarion-Ledger in 1986.
The fictional 1988 film Mississippi Burning inspired him to begin investigating murders from the civil rights era for which the perpetrators had never been convicted. His reporting for the Clarion-Ledger has led to the convictions of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, the leader of the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers for ordering the 1966 murder of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer; Bobby Cherry for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church that killed four girls; Edgar Ray Killen for helping orchestrate the 21 June 1964 killings of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman; and James Ford Seale for the 1964 abduction and killing of two African American teenagers, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. In addition, Mitchell’s efforts have motivated investigations into other civil rights–era cold cases, resulting in dozens of additional convictions. Mitchell’s work in 2012 and 2013 led to the arrest of Felix Vail, who is suspected of killing two of his wives and his longtime girlfriend between 1962 and 1984. In 2014 Mitchell began investigating Mississippi’s corrections system, detailing corruption and abuse that have resulted in charges against at least one official. In addition, Mitchell’s investigation of the murder conviction of Michelle Byrom not only led the Mississippi Supreme Court to order her off of death row but ultimately resulted in her release from prison.
The Pulitzer Prize board named Mitchell a finalist in 2006 for his work leading to Killen’s imprisonment. He has twice won the Gannett Company’s Outstanding Achievement by an Individual Award and has received numerous other honors, including the William Ringle Outstanding Achievement Career Award from Gannett, which owns the Clarion-Ledger. He has been named Journalist of the Year by the American Board of Trial Advocates and received the George Polk Award for Justice Reporting. In 2002 Judith and William Serrin featured Mitchell’s reporting in an anthology of three centuries of the nation’s best journalism, Muckraking! The Journalism That Changed America. He has also been honored with the Heywood Broun Award, the Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Award, the Sidney Hillman Award, the Inland Press Association Award, the University of Mississippi’s Silver Em Award, and the Columbia University Journalism School’s John Chancellor Award, which goes “to a reporter with courage and integrity for cumulative professional accomplishments.” And in 2009 he received a five-hundred-thousand-dollar “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation because his “life and work serve as an example of how a journalist willing to take risks and unsettle waters can make a difference in the pursuit of justice.”
Mitchell has been featured in the movies and on television. In Ghosts of Mississippi, the 1996 Rob Reiner film about the reopening of the Evers case, Mitchell is portrayed by Jerry Levine. Mitchell appears in a 2000 Learning Channel documentary, Civil Rights Martyrs, and served as a consultant on a 1999 Discovery Channel documentary, Killed by the Klan. In 2016 Mitchell released the documentary Gone, which detailed his work bringing to justice Mississippian Felix Vail, a suspected serial killer.
- R. Hayes Johnson Jr., Human Rights (Fall 2000)
- MacArthur Foundation website, www.macfound.org
- Jerry Mitchell Biography, Jackson Clarion-Ledger website, www.clarionledger.com
- Joe Treen, Mother Jones (24 January 2007)