Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell spent all day Tuesday at Butler University speaking to classes during the day and telling his story in the evening as part of the Howard L. Schrott lecture series.
For Mitchell, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006, it all began after seeing the movie “Mississippi Burning,” where the disappearance of civil rights activists is investigated by two FBI agents.
He saw the press premiere of the movie in January of 1989 with the FBI agents and journalists who originally covered the case. When the movie ended, Mitchell had many unanswered questions.
“I was stunned,” he said. “All these guys were involved, and no one was prosecuted for murder.”
Mitchell wanted to look more closely at the cases, but the records were sealed by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.
Eventually the files were leaked to Mitchell, and he gained possession of 2,400 pages of documents.
Mitchell went over all of these documents in December and had his stories running by January.
“I was reading over Christmas day,” Mitchell said.
After the initial story ran, the “Mississippi Burning” case was reopened.
Mitchell initially was just writing about the cases. He said he wasn’t trying to reopen the cases, but one thing led to the other.
He said he faced many obstacles while tackling these stories.
“Everyone thinks if they write a story, that, ‘Oh, everyone will love me,’” Mitchell said. “Forget that. As a journalist, certain people won’t like the things you are doing.
“Do the right thing, and people will hate your guts.”
Through his stories, Mitchell was able to help solve the crimes, and give relief to the families of the victims.
When Mitchell received the John Chancellor Award in 2005, some of the families were with him at the ceremony. The fact that they were there and completely grateful for his work meant more than the award itself did, he said.
During his time at Butler on Tuesday, Mitchell gave some advice to the students. He said students have to be persistent.
If he would have given up, the now-solved cases would have never been reopened, and the men who committed the crimes would have never been convicted.
“I first wrote about the ‘Mississippi Burning’ case in 1989, and in 2005, the man was convicted,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also recommended students write as much as they possibly could and maybe even try a little reporting.
“Reporting is more important than writing,” he said. “You can always perfect your writing over time.”
Throughout the years, Mitchell said he has received plenty of threats from Klansmen and others against the civil rights movement. He said it has affected his reporting.
“That has led to an unexpected gift of living fearlessly,” he said. “We must be willing to stand up to bullies, stand up to those who tell racist jokes, who degrade women. We must be saying, ‘No, this is not acceptable.’”
Mitchell said this is the role of journalists.
“At our best, we are watchdogs,” he said. “We give voice to the voiceless.”