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PART 2: Interview with “Spies of Mississippi” Director and Reporter Jerry Mitchell

Web ExclusiveFebruary 25, 2014
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In part two of our interview about the new film, Spies of Mississippi, we continue to look at how the Mississippi state government spied on civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, describes how his own newspaper was a participant in the state’s efforts to block desegregation. We also play an interview between Jerry Mitchell and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Evers was assassinated in 1963 in the driveway outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Mitchell’s reporting helped lead to the conviction of Evers’ killer, Byron De La Beckwith, in 1994. Watch the first part of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!,, with part two of our interview on a new PBS documentary that has aired on Independent Lens called Spies of Mississippi. It’s a film that exposes how in the ’50s and ’60s a little-known state agency called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission hired spies to infiltrate the civil rights movement and squash attempts to desegregate the state and register African Americans to vote. Some of the spies were themselves African-American. The commission generated more than 160,000 pages of reports, many of which were shared with local police departments whose officers belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. The film looks at how some of those reports contributed to the 1964 deaths of the Freedom Summer activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. This was 50 years ago.

Our guests are Jerry Mitchell, investigative journalist for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. He won the release of more than 2,400 pages of commission records in 1989 and used those to reopen many cold cases from the civil rights era. His work helped lead to the 1994 conviction of the killer of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers and paved the way for 23 more convictions. And we’re joined here in studio by Dawn Porter, who’s the director and producer of Spies of Mississippi.

We’re going to go first not to a film—a clip, but to the making of the film, an excerpt, and in this one—and, Dawn, maybe you could lay it out for us—is an interview between Jerry Mitchell, the reporter, and Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers.

DAWN PORTER: PBS does this terrific thing where they let filmmakers do short pieces. And so, this was an interview with Myrlie Evers and Jerry Mitchell. And I love this piece so much, because one of the bright spots of this sordid tale was the relationship that developed between Jerry and Myrlie Evers, because it was really Jerry’s reporting—it was good, old-fashioned journalism, the kind that you do here, that Jerry did for his newspaper, and his reporting led to, after a third trial, the conviction of Medgar Ever’s killer. And their friendship is a result of that.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go to that clip from the making of the Spies of Mississippi. This is our guest, who’s still in studio with us in Jackson, Mississippi, Jerry Mitchell, speaking with Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of the slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in 1963 in his driveway. Mitchell’s reporting helped lead to the conviction of Evers’ [killer], Byron De La Beckwith, in 1994.

JERRY MITCHELL: The Sovereignty Commission was created in 1956. So this—the idea behind this was preserve, you know, the white way of life, the Southern way of life. And they gave incredible powers. I mean, to look at the law, they gave it judicial powers. They gave it police powers. A lot of those who were prominent were afraid of coming out and publicly supporting the civil rights movement. The NAACP met in secret. That’s how frightening it was back then. In other words, you might be killed just for belonging to the NAACP. And, of course, Medgar Evers, who was the head of the NAACP in Mississippi, was assassinated in ’63.

All those records that were connected with the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission were sealed. I was able to get my hands on 2,400 pages of Sovereignty Commission records, and this was back in 1989. And what those files show was at the same time the state of Mississippi was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers, this other arm of the state, the Sovereignty Commission, which, by the way, was headed by the governor, was secretly assisting the defense, trying to get him acquitted. And my story ran October 1st, 1989. The authorities reopened the Medgar Evers case as a result of the story, and Byron De La Beckwith was reprosecuted and convicted, February 5th, 1994.

And I remember, too, I mean, especially, the day that the conviction came. And I know you do, too.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: I said, “God, I have done the best I can do. I don’t know what else I can do.” Going out of that door at the hotel, and they had policemen, two policemen, there with dogs.


MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: Getting past those dogs—and you have to remember that dogs were a symbol of pain—


MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: —and suffering—getting past them, getting in the car, going around the corner to the courthouse, and not being sure whether we were going to get there in time to hear the verdict, it was absolutely crazy. And I’m not sure that my heart beat one time from the hotel to—

JERRY MITCHELL: Right, right.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: —to the courtroom. And getting in just time enough to hear that verdict, I felt as though every pain, every problem I had had over the years—


MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: —with prejudice, racism and hatred, hating—really hating people, a population, for what happened to Medgar, just flew out. It was like every pore—


MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: —was just pushing all of this emotion out. You are basically the reason that the third trial took place, and the conviction. So I’ll never be able to thank you enough for being there.

JERRY MITCHELL: And you think about this: Because of that case—


JERRY MITCHELL: —how many other cases there have been.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: How many are there?

JERRY MITCHELL: There have been 24 convictions total, including Medgar’s—you know, Beckwith.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: And you know who’s responsible for that? You are.

JERRY MITCHELL: There are a lot of folks—I mean, I think that’s only fair—you know, who have worked on it. But I appreciate your compliment.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: Yes, but you were primarily responsible for that. Accept it. Accept it.

AMY GOODMAN: There is Myrlie Evers speaking to Jerry Mitchell. Jerry Mitchell, have you accepted it yet, in Jackson, Mississippi, that your work led to—I mean, took three trials, and talk about why it did.

JERRY MITCHELL: Yeah, it was an amazing experience, and all these cases have been amazing experiences. But I think the first one was very special. And as you mentioned, I ended up having a very special relationship with Myrlie Evers as a result. And her courage and perseverance are the reason that this case pushed forward, I really believe. If she hadn’t pushed forward and believed in it and believed it could happen, it wouldn’t have happened. And so, I think she deserves a tremendous amount of credit, not just for this case, but for her work, continuing work, basically helping bring back the NAACP from bankruptcy and other things that she’s done over her lifetime, just a real beacon of light for this nation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about why it took three trials, and what happened in between each, to get Byron De La Beckwith behind bars.

JERRY MITCHELL: Right. Well, the first two happened almost back to back. In 1964, he was tried by two all-white juries. To their credit, if you remember, not that many years before that, Emmett Till’s killers, the jury acquitted those guys, who of course later confessed to their killings. But in this case, the jurors actually—there was a hung jury: They split. And so, a number of the jurors, quite a number, most of them, in fact, believed that Beckwith was guilty, but there was a split. And so, as a result of that, it enabled a third trial, and that didn’t happen until 1994. Beckwith was actually indicted in 1990, but there were a lot of court machinations before that finally it wound up in court in 1994.

Very different-looking jury, you know, basically split black and white. The foreman of the jury was an African-American preacher. Interesting little tidbit about that is the jury was split the night before. I mean, you could tell. You could kind of see the anger in the faces. And the morning, the very next morning, which was actually a Saturday morning—I talked later to the foreman, and he said he just had them all come together and said, “You know, let’s pray about this.” And so, the African-American pastor led them in prayer, and they got done, and suddenly, as they began to talk, everything seemed to work out, and they agreed that Byron De La Beckwith was guilty.

And when the word “guilty” rang out in the courtroom, you could hear the waves of joy cascading down the hall, until it reached a foyer full of people, black and white, who erupted in cheers. And I just felt chills. It was just an amazing experience.

AMY GOODMAN: Dawn Porter, how does Medgar Evers fit into this story, Spies of Mississippi?

DAWN PORTER: Well, Medgar Evers was one of the original targets of the Sovereignty Commission. So, the remarkable story that Jerry just tells you and about those first two trials, the Sovereignty Commission was involved in assuring that there was a hung jury in those two trials. So while the state—you know, the state—it’s a state prosecution. It’s not a federal trial; it’s a state prosecution. So the state is prosecuting, bringing, trying to convict Byron De La Beckwith. The Sovereignty Commission, headed by the governor, headed by the same state, is doing jury research and looking to find people who have separatist segregation views so that there was no chance of a conviction. So, Medgar Evers’ death was one of the lowlights of the Sovereignty Commission’s efforts.

AMY GOODMAN: You, Jerry, just mentioned Emmett Till, and the news just came out that—about the death of an 86-year-old Mississippi woman—


AMY GOODMAN: —which barely made headlines the other day. The brief obituary on—


AMY GOODMAN: —Juanita Milam ran in the Sun Herald. Few noticed her passing, despite her being the widow of the killer in one of the nation’s most notorious crimes. She was the widow of J.W. Milam, who, together with Roy Bryant, his brother-in-law, killed Emmett Till in the summer of 1955.


AMY GOODMAN: They, too, as you said, were acquitted, but they admitted it themselves in a Look magazine report?

JERRY MITCHELL: Right. Yes, they did, and—which was amazing. And William Bradford Huie did that interview with them, and they basically just confessed that they had beaten him. They beat him brutally and killed him—and, of course, would have gotten away with it completely, in terms of not even having a trial, but, of course, Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, insisted on having an open casket, because she wanted the world to see. And as a result of that—you know, of course, there were—that was in Chicago. There were a quarter of a million people who actually came to that funeral, passed by, saw that. The photograph of him literally went around the world. In that photograph of him, their monstrous act basically became absorbed in his body. He literally looked like the monster, the monstrous act that they committed against him. And so, the world was outraged. And so, the world saw what they did and what they got away with, and everyone knew.

AMY GOODMAN: The crime occurred in Money, Mississippi. Mamie Till had sent her son Emmett, 14 years old, to be with his family to get out of the city in the summer. And he’s dragged out of bed. They say he, quote, “wolf-whistled” at a white woman, and he ends up in the bottom of the Tallahatchie River.


AMY GOODMAN: Since they admitted what they did after they were acquitted, there was no way to bring further charges against them?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, they could have been—they could have been charged and convicted of kidnapping, but they couldn’t be—because they had been acquitted of murder, you couldn’t retry them on that same charge, because of the—you know, the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy. If the jury had hung up like in the Beckwith case, they could have—they could have been tried again.

AMY GOODMAN: Dawn Porter, as you did this work, and before that, Gideon’s Army, talk about the links between the two, Gideon’s Army to Spies of Mississippi.

DAWN PORTER: You know, it was really interesting to do a historical piece, because I think that the system of segregation that precedes our criminal justice system, I think that there are direct ties. You know, we have a history where we’ve created a separate—you know, we’ve created—there’s one set of laws for people who are black and brown, and there’s another set of laws for white people. And that was institutionalized in the South in the '50s. Today, we don't have laws that separate people, but we have a circumstance that separates people. So more black and brown people are arrested, are targeted for drug convictions and are in prison. And I think that understanding that this history of separation and of targeting people of color, it didn’t just start, you know, today. There’s a history there.

AMY GOODMAN: And talking about parallels, Jerry Mitchell, talk about the role of the media, The Clarion-Ledger, The Jackson Advocate, other newspapers at that time.

JERRY MITCHELL: Right. Well, I mean, that was one of the shocking things to me as I read the papers for the first time, was basically seeing about my own newspaper and how that they were very much involved in trying to thwart the civil rights movement. They were getting reports directly, believe it or not, from the Sovereignty Commission up until 1968. And there are memos where The Clarion-Ledger is upset because they’re cutting off the memos that they’ve been getting all the time. You see things, for example, with The Jackson Advocate, which was the African-American newspaper, which the editor, Percy Greene, was on their payroll, this commission’s payroll.

DAWN PORTER: Right. He’s a spy.

JERRY MITCHELL: So, what happened in one case is that the commission decided they wanted to smear Martin Luther King, and so they wrote a story, gave it to The Jackson Advocate to publish verbatim, which it published verbatim in The Jackson Advocate, which The Clarion-Ledger then picked up and attributed to The Jackson Advocate, because that way it looked more legitimate, I guess, you know, for lack of a better term, because a black newspaper printed it before The Clarion-Ledger. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: Under whose byline was it in The Jackson Advocate?

JERRY MITCHELL: It didn’t have a byline, believe it or not. But it just was printed without—you know, without a byline, but they printed it verbatim from Sovereignty Commission. They just handed it to them, and they printed it.

AMY GOODMAN: You can pick up the story, Dawn.

DAWN PORTER: Percy Greene is an influential newspaper editor. This is where people in Mississippi, black people, are getting their news. So, for the white separatist Sovereignty Commission to write that kind of article, it carries huge weight. Remember, this is before cellphones. This is before mass television even. Most of these people did not have televisions. So newspapers, churches, all those meetings are really important sources of information. So, Percy Greene is trusted in the community. If he says something, people are likely to believe it’s true. And then to have the article picked up—

AMY GOODMAN: And if someone passes it on to him, he sends it on to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.

DAWN PORTER: That’s right. That’s absolutely right.

AMY GOODMAN: But to have that article picked up, go ahead.

DAWN PORTER: To have that article picked up then reinforces its accuracy. The other thing—and I believe it was The Clarion-Ledger, although it may have been another paper, the map of where the three civil rights workers were buried appears on the front page of that paper. And that was a direct warning to any outsiders who were going to come here and cause trouble in Mississippi: You might end up 14 feet under an earthen dam, as well. And so, there was a map of where the three civil rights workers were buried. It was a hand-drawn map. It was done by a Sovereignty Commission investigator spy, given to the newspaper and published the next day. So, this wasn’t an investigative effort.

AMY GOODMAN: The next day after?

DAWN PORTER: The next day after the bodies were discovered. It’s on the front page of—and it was issued by the Sovereignty Commission spies. And it was issued as a warning: If you come here, you’re going to end up under the earthen dam, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: When was it discovered that Percy Greene was on the payroll of the racist Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.

DAWN PORTER: So that happened in the early ’50s. So, it was—in the late ’50s. And so, Percy Greene is discovered. Reverend Humes is discovered.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain who Reverend Humes is.

DAWN PORTER: Reverend Humes was the African-American minister with the largest congregation in that Mississippi area. And then B.L. Bell, who was a superintendent of schools, who was actually the uncle of Margaret Block and Sam Block, who were very active in the movement. He was not only providing information about his own family, he provided information about students who were doing voter registration. So these are kids—17-, 18-year-olds—and he would tell the Sovereignty Commission what they were doing. They were doing voter registration drives. It literally endangered their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: And then talk about the sequestering of this information, classifying it so it couldn’t be revealed for decades. Of course, the people who were voting on that in the state Legislature were also implicated in it.

DAWN PORTER: That’s right. So—and here’s where Jerry Mitchell’s reporting is so extraordinary and is—you know, this is a real victory for good journalism. So, the last act of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission in the '70s—it wasn't officially disbanded until 1977, so this is not ancient history. But their very last act is to seal the records for 50 years. The ACLU sues to open those records, and in the ’90s the records are opened. But before the records are actually opened, Jerry Mitchell cultivated a source and got a source to release him a little over a thousand pages of records. And his reporting and his writing about what was in those files helped to secure the eventual release of all of the records, which was a much larger treasure trove of information. It was very much like your first guest said. They had no idea how many pages of information would be revealed—187,000 pages, 87,000 American names. And all of this is online. You can go to MDAH, and if your relative was in the civil rights movement, you can look up their name and see if they were spied on.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Agent X, this man, Bolden.


AMY GOODMAN: One of the ways they figured out who he was was the names of the people gathered at each meeting—


AMY GOODMAN: —that the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission had.

DAWN PORTER: Right. So, these were spy reports, so they would list who was in attendance at every meeting. And when the civil right—when the records are released, the civil rights activists look over and say, “Who were the spies? Who were these people?” They thought they knew everyone. And as you mentioned, eventually, Bolden becomes the vice president of the NAACP. This is not a person who seemed like a creepy outsider. He was very much an insider. He was all over the South. And so, they start comparing. They start saying, “Jane, John and Sue are listed. But Bolden was also there.” But he never shows up in the records, and they start to realize there’s a pattern there.

AMY GOODMAN: The pattern that links all these meetings is the one name that’s not mentioned in the spy reports—

DAWN PORTER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —and it’s the spy himself. I want to ask you one last question about the footage. Some of it is just astounding.

DAWN PORTER: This was definitely a project, a labor of love. It took more than four years to make this film. And one of the great assets that we had—I used to work for ABC News, and they—the news networks covered the civil rights movement, and they shot on film. So, there was this remarkable treasure trove of original footage that was from the civil rights movement. And so, a lot—I really have to thank ABC. They worked with me to make that footage available so you can see it. Some of it hasn’t really been seen before. And then there are, you know, just a number of—but it’s really mostly, you know, that coverage. That was a time when we sent reporters to stay, and so they went to the South, and they did interviews. And they stayed, and they got remarkable things.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean it wasn’t just those know-nothing pundits who sit in a studio who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong?

DAWN PORTER: And it wasn’t a three-minute remote. It takes time to cover and to really understand and to do interviews. So you see in the film an interview with a very young Bob Moses, where his voice cracks, and he talks about his plan. And you can—you know, there’s—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s amazing footage.

DAWN PORTER: That’s the kind of coverage that was done then, for all of Freedom Summer, to document, you know, step by step what was happening in that freedom movement.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, two of the three civil rights activists who were killed that summer—and there weren’t just three people—


AMY GOODMAN: —who were killed that summer. Remember, when they were digging up bodies to find them, they kept saying, “No, it’s not them. No, it’s not them.” Who were these people?

DAWN PORTER: Right. You know, that’s actually one of the reasons why the three—the map is published and the three civil rights workers’ bodies are buried, because the FBI goes down, they start indiscriminately digging river—digging up rivers—and there’s a very famous song about, like, in the Mississippi River—and they started finding all these other bodies, that the police would tell a widow, “Your husband’s off in Cuba. He’s left you.” Well, it turned out, of course, they were lynched or they were murdered. And there were so many other bodies that the state of Mississippi said, “Stop digging. We’ll tell you where they are.” And that’s how the civil rights workers’ bodies are actually tipped off and found.

AMY GOODMAN: Wow! And, you know, it was Bill Moyers, right, who got the call at the White House when he was working for LBJ that the bodies of the three civil rights workers—this is weeks, weeks later from when they were killed—when they got the word that they had been found.

DAWN PORTER: There’s footage that we have. It’s not in the film, and I wish we had had another hour to do for this. But there’s a call, Johnson and Hoover, and they’re talking about—Johnson says, “Well, maybe they’ve just disappeared.” And, you know, the FBI says, “I don’t think that that’s what happened here.” So there were—the White House was involved and under—not involved in the killings, but understood that eventually their bodies were going to be found.

Another nice thing that’s happened as a result of this film is I’ve made contact with the Andrew Goodman Foundation. And so, they’ve started—his brother, David Goodman, and his wonderful wife—have started a foundation. And they do a thing for civil rights heroes. And they encourage people to identify people who are doing today civil rights activity. It may take different forms.

AMY GOODMAN: And the book of Carolyn Goodman, Andrew’s mother, has just been published.

DAWN PORTER: It’s a terrific book. The foundation is doing great work. And we’re actually creating a digital app that is going to highlight the film and do lesson plans for young people, so that they can remember this history, because, you know, that’s what’s happening now, is we are—we don’t have people who were there. Those people are dying. And we start to think that maybe this wasn’t so bad, maybe it wasn’t that dangerous. And it’s so important to understand how recent that was, how dangerous it was and how much we owe those people who literally gave or risked their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Dawn Porter, thanks so much for your great work.

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