tv Investigative Journalism Civil Rights CSPAN August 27, 2021 6:24pm-7:32pm EDT
next on american history tv, investigative journalist jerry mitchell talks about how he helped put four klansmen in jail. american university's investigative reporting workshop block alumni alliance and school of communications co-hosted this event. it's just over an hour. good evening. my name is charles lewis, investigator and executive he hadar to of the investigative reporting workshop. welcome to the doyle theater at american university school of communication. this important event tonight is co-sponsored by the au school of communication, the investigating
reporting workshop and the black alumni alliance. the investigative reporting workshop is a nonprofit journalism organization celebrating its first decade of publishing dozens of major investigative reporting projects and more than 200 news stories co-published with at least 28 media partners, especially the pbs program "front line," "the washington post," and wamu. the mission of the black alumni alliance is to create a lifelong and worldwide community among more than 6,600 au alumni that identify with the black and african heritage diaspora to increase opportunities for meaningful engagement toward the goal of greater awareness, pride, participation, volunteer involvement and philanthropic commitment to american university. we are pleased to have a number of alliance members here tonight including alliance's president, who will make some brief remarks
closing out our program later. it is our distinct honor, pleasure, and privilege to welcome courageous, tenacious investigative journalist terry mitchell to our campus tonight and special thanks to dr. sherry williams who will interview him on stage here after his presentation of about 20 minutes. jerry mitchell has investigated some of the most heinous civil rights crimes in u.s. history. he was an investigative reporter at "the clarion-ledger" newspaper for 30 years. his stories have also exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations, reforms of state agencies, and the firings of boards and officials. his stories have also helped lead to the release of two people from mississippi's death row. a winner of a $500,000 macarthur genius grant and more than 30 other national awards including
being named a pulitzer prize finalist, he is finishing his memoir about his pursuit of civil rights cold cases. his book is entitled "race against time" for simon & schuster. he is co-founder and the director of the mississippi center for investigative reporting. sherry williams is assistant professor here at the american university school of communications. dr. williams has a master's degree and a ph.d. from the syracuse university newhouse school of public communications and a degree in english with a concentration in journalism from jackson state university in mississippi. interestingly she also worked for a few years at "the clarion-ledger" newspaper in jackson, mississippi. her work focuses on how marginalized groups, especially women of color, are portrayed in the media. she is now leading a study that explores how black millenials
are affected by seeing images of fatal police brutality against black people on social media. without further ado, jerry mitchell will now talk and show some photos about his remarkable civil rights reporting these past three decades. after that, dr. sherry williams will ask him about his important, courageous reporting and then we'll open it up for questions from the audience. so, you're on. [ applause ] >> thank you so much, appreciate it, chuck. thank you, american university, he look forward to talking with you. dr. sherry, it will be great. and anyway, it's great to be with y'all. let's back this up a second, it got pushed forward. but yeah, we're going to -- we have kind of a short time so we'll talk about a couple of
cases i worked on. you may have heard about these cases in the news. one of them you may have heard about, one you may not have heard about. it involves medgar evers. medgar evers was -- actually fought in world war ii. he was involved in fighting in normandy in world war ii, fighting the nazis there, returned home to mississippi to fight racism all over again in the form of jim crow that barred african-americans from restaurants, from restrooms. medgar evers is before brown versus board of education. sometimes people say the civil rights movement in mississippi began with brown versus board of education. that's a lie. it began far before that. and medgar evers was among those who was involved in those campaigns. he was a part of the campaign in the mississippi delta where they had bumper stickers that said don't buy gas or you can't use the restroom. and so he was a part of that
campaign along with dr. t.r.n. howard, if you know anything about civil rights history, who worked on the emmett till case along with medgar evers. and so he came home from world war ii and on his 21st birthday went with a group of african-american soldiers including his brother charles to try and go vote at the courthouse in decatur, mississippi and were turned away by white men with guns. but medgar evers said in recalling that day, i vowed that day i would never be whipped again. and so he applied, believe it or not, to the university of mississippi to attend law school there. he was turned away. this is, again, before brown versus board of education and before james meredith ended up becoming the first known
african-american student there. he became field secretary for the naacp in mississippi and he roamed the state of mississippi, put about 40,000 miles a year on his oldsmobile. and so he went to naacp branches, tried to recruit members. he got involved in voting rights. he was involved in the protests and sit-ins that took place in downtown jackson. he wasn't involved in the sit-in but he was involved in the organization of students. we have one of them here with us tonight, joan trompauer is with us tonight. [ applause ] mike is here who wrote a book about that, glad to have you all
here. [ applause ] it's kind of that iconic photo, if you've ever seen it, the most violent response to a sit-in in the united states during the early '60s. and so medgar, on the same night that president kennedy told the nation that the grandsons of slaves were still not free, medgar evers came home that night just after midnight and was shot in the back in his driveway. and his wife, children, heard the shot, ran outside, and saw his blood, screamed. and he was pronounced dead within an hour or so. 26 years later, i'm standing with his assassin. this is a picture of byron d. lebec, outside his home in signal mount, tennessee where i went to visit him.
i came because i was obsessed. i don't know if you're like me but if someone tells me i can't have something, i want it a million times worse. there was something in mississippi called a mississippi sovereignty commission which was a state segregationist spy agency that existed from the 1950s until the 1970s. and the mississippi legislature at that point voted in the '70s to seal all those records for 50 years. i'm talking about more than 132,000 pages of records that were sealed by mississippi lawmakers, and me being a kind of cynical and suspicious reporter, thought, i bet there's something in there, you know? and so i began to develop sources that accessed the files, began to leak me the files. what they show is at the same time the state of mississippi was prosecuting byron d. lebec
for the killing of medgar evers, this other arm of the state, which by the way was headed by the governor, was secretly assist lebec's defense, trying to get him acquitted, and nobody knew that. my story ran october 1, 1989. at the time that my story ran, the odds were literally more than a million to one against the case ever being reopened. but the widow of medgar evers believed, and she prayed, and some amazing things happened. a couple of months later, jackson police are cleaning out a closet and happened to find a box that contained the crime scene photographs of the killing of medgar evers, including the fingerprint of byron d. lebec that was lifted. a few months after that, marilee evers shared with me a coast copy of the court transcript
that she had saved. and the murder weapon was found in the father-in-law's closet which sounds like i'm making it up, but it really did happen. as i mentioned, i went to go visit byron d. lebec. he lived in signal mount, tennessee. this was in april of 1990. i went to go visit him. i can honestly say he was the most racist person i ever spent serious time with. n-word this, n-word that, then he started on other white races, very anti-semitic as well. so he believed that jews were, quote, satanic. by the end of the conversation, i felt like i needed a bath, you know what i mean, it was one of those conversations. so it was getting dark. and i thought it was a good time to leave. and so he insisted on walking me out to the car. and i'm like, really, that's
okay, you know, i think i can find my way. i'm just at the end of the driveway. so anyway, he walked me out to the car anyway, gets me out to the car, kind of blocks my way to the door and says, if you write positive things about white caucasian christians, god will bless you. if you write negative things about white caucasian christians, god will punish you. if god does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for him. and so his wife had made me a sandwich. i think you can guess what i did with the sandwich. so byron -- so byron d. lebec was indicted in december of 1990. this is months later, he's indicted in the murder of medgar evers. at the moment, remember, this is all pre-internet, okay?
so byron d. lebec did not realize i was the one that wrote the story that got the case reopened when i went and visited him. he fought extradition. by this time, he had figured it out. so he saw me across the courtroom and he goes, see him over there, when he dies, he's going to africa. i turned to my friend, you know, i always wanted to go to africa. not surprisingly, byron d. lebec was convicted on february 5, 1994, in the exact same courtroom he had been tried in almost 30 years to the day. and when the word "guilty" rang out, you could hear the waves of joy as they cascaded down the
hall. it was full of people, black and white, it just erupted in cheers. and i just felt chills, because the impossible had suddenly become possible. and marilee evers and her daughter cheered as well. not too long after byron d. lebec was indicted in 1990, i met with this lady. this is ellie damer. this is the widow of vernon damer, she's holding a photograph of vernon, an naacp leader in mississippi, friends with medgar evers. he was a farmer, businessman. he had 200 acres that they grew cotton and other crops with -- he was very dedicated to voting rights. in fact that's how he became
targeted by the klansmen back in 1966. so the klan attacked him and his family in the middle of the night. can you imagine sleeping, in the middle of the night? this was what it was like for vernon damars' family, 2:00 in the morning, the klan firebombed their home, set their house on fire and began firing their guns into the house. vernon damar woke up, grabbed his shotgun, ran to the front of the house, began firing back at the klansmen so his family could escape safely out a back window. unfortunately the flames of the fire seared his lungs and he died later that day. a few weeks later in the mail came his voter registration card. he had fought his whole life for the right of all americans to be able to vote and had never been able to cast a ballot himself. the guy who ordered the killing, oh, by the way, this is what his
sons, he had four sons at the time in the military, and this is what they came home to. in fact, vernon damar, six of his seven sons served a total of 78 years of service for this country. isn't that amazing? heartbreaking photo. taken, by the way, by -- trivia, this photograph, by the way, was taken by chris mcnair. i don't know if you know who chris mcnair is. the father of denise mcnair, who is one of the four little girls who was killed in the birmingham church bombing. so he took this photograph. the guy who ordered the bombings of vernon damar in his home was this guy, his name is sam bowers, he was the head of the white knights in the kkk, responsible for at least ten killings in mississippi that we know of. bowers was tried but had never
been convicted in this case. so after the vernon damar family met with me, they went and met with the district attorney, who acted interested and then over time got cold feet. he had an excuse, and then when that got taken care of, he had another excuse. and then when that one got taken care of, he had another excuse. so you get the picture. and then another district attorney came in. they were like starting over from square one. it just looked like nothing was going to happen. so i got a fellowship to ohio state to go get my masters, they were going to pay me and let me get my masters for free. i said, that sounds like a good deal. and so i'm literally in ohio, in spring of 1997, when i get this telephone call from this guy who wouldn't identify himself, wouldn't give me his name but wanted to meet with me. so i flew back to mississippi. i met with him. and a buddy of his, two sons of vernon damar, and we met in this
motel room that reeked of chlorine. the pool was right outside. and it turned out this guy had worked -- he was a kid at the time, had worked for sam bowers. he was the guy who kind of typed up the klan propaganda, because i guess no one in the klan -- else in the klan knew how to type. but anyway, so he overheard sam bowers give the orders to kill vernon damar. and so he told us that. and after he met with us, we met with the district attorney and the case got reopened. this was in '97. the guy who had been kind of the key witness back in the 1960s was this guy, his name is billy roy pitts. billy roy pitts had been involved in the killing of vernon damar, dropped his gun, got caught. he was researching how many time these guys like pitts actually served in prison in mississippi.
because it was a bit of a joke. governors pardoned some of these guys, they commuted their sentences. there were only a few convicted, but the ones who were convicted didn't spend much time in prison. and so i was researching each one of those and i got to him, and he -- i couldn't find any record of his state time but i was told he went in the federal witness protection program. so i was checking with the federal bureau of prisons to see how much federal time he did. so i'm talking to the archivist there, she pulled his file. i said, i understand he had a five-year federal sentence. she said yes. i said, how much time did he actually serve? she said, 3 1/2 years. i said, okay. and i said, now, i understand he left federal prison and the witness protection program. she said, that's impossible. i'm like, what are you talking about? she says, there was no federal witness protection program back then. which meant billy roy pitts had never served a single day of his
life sentence in mississippi. kind of a big oversight, right? you don't hear about that one every day. and so i didn't know if pitts was alive, if he was dead, where he was. so i got on the internet. and there was -- most of the internet sites i knew, you had to have a city and a state, but i didn't know that. so i just kind of typed -- there was one site i knew where you didn't have to have that. i just kind of typed in his name. and up it popped, billy roy pitts, had his address in louisiana, his telephone number. i called him. the first 25 minutes of the conversation we are not like this: how did you find me, how did you find me? i'm like, it's on the internet. i have an unlisted telephone number! i'm like, guess you have to take it up with them. as a result of my story that he had never served a single day of
his life sentence, mississippi authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. he didn't like that. in fact he ran. while he was on the run he sent me this audio cassette. i played it, and this is literally how it began. jerry, i just thought i would let you know, you've ruined my life. but i promise if i talk to anybody, i would talk to you. so this tape proceeds to talk about his klan involvement, his involvement in the vernon damar murder. shortly after this, he turned himself into authorities. this now leads to the arrest of sam bowers. and this was in may of 1998. and sam bowers, in addition to sam bowers, was arrested his right hand guy, devers nicks. when his family brought devers nicks in, it was like the most pitiful sight you've ever seen. they wheeled him in in the wheelchair, you see the tall
green oxygen tank, the whole bit. and they wheel him up in front of the judge and he's like, i can't take more than a couple of steps without oxygen, judge. the judge says, i don't normally do this, i'm going to let you out without bond. a dozen days later, this is like a reporter's dream, this is where we caught him. [ laughter ] so he got arrested. yeah, he loved me. so, fast forward. sam bowers goes on trial and guess who's there to testify on his behalf but mr. golfer. and so devers nicks is talking to his lawyer. and i don't mean this as a cruel detail, but i'm going to tell you this anyway. i don't always tell this, but okay. so his lawyer is this really
good criminal defense lawyer back in the 1960s. but by this point, the guy is in his 80s. it's great, it's great. but the reason for that detail will be more apparent later. and so he's talking, he's trying to work out a signaling system. everybody, i know all of y'all, probably like me, watch the cop shows, "csi," you know you can claim your fifth amendment right at any point in time. so they're trying to work out a signaling system on this. he's talking to his client, devers nicks and he's saying, when you get up there, you need to take the fifth, i'll raise my hand. devers is like, okay, okay. and he's wearing the same golf cap, which cracked me up. and so he gets up, devers nicks gets up, starts testifying. i looked over at his lawyer, five minutes later, his lawyer was like --
[ snoring ] so devers kept right on testifying, yeah, i was in the klan. he was trying to put a positive spin on it. "the klan was a benevolent organization, passing out fruit baskets to the needy at christmas." under cross-examination, the prosecutor got up and said, mr. nicks, just how many fruit baskets did you pass out? and devers said, oh, sad to say, none. i swear, it was the funniest trial i ever covered in my life as a reporter. deadly serious matter, but funny trial. sam bowers was represented by this guy on the right, his name is travis buckley. he was not just a lawyer for the klan. he was a leader in the klan. he was actually indicted in the vernon damar firebombing at one
point, okay? so billy roy pitts testified about this planning meeting that took place prior to the attack on vernon damar and his family. and buckley asked him about it. it's like, now, mr. pitts, who all was at that planning meeting? pitts is like, let's see. i was there, sam bowers was there, devers nicks. well, you were there. and buckley's like, uh, uh, objection, your honor. it's the only trial i ever covered where the witness implicated the defense lawyer himself. not surprisingly, sam bowers was convicted, august 21, 1998. but the thing is, you know, the
hate that caused this, right, if we're really honest in this country, it's never really gone away. it wasn't just a few years ago, right, that a young man walked into this church in charleston and killed these nine beautiful people. and it wasn't that long ago either down in charlottesville, right, that we had happen what we had happen. not that far from here. it's easy to think it doesn't happen around here, right? but myself, i've had -- i've had my share of, you know, death threats and things like that. people sent pictures of me and my family, "we know where you live," things like that. sure, it's disconcerting and things like that, but it led to an unexpected gift, that's the gift of living fearlessly.
living fearlessly is not about living without fear. it's about living -- living fearlessly is really about living beyond fear, isn't it? it's about living for something greater than ourselves, right? to date now there have been 24 convictions in these civil rights cases across the country. [ applause ] and, you know, i don't know, this is -- anyway, i am a person of faith. and i do believe that god's hand has been involved in these craze. but the most amazing thing i've witnessed actually has not been the convictions, which might surprise you. the most amazing thing that i've witnessed has been some of the racial reconciliation. not too long after sam bowers was convicted, billy roy pitts testified in a hearing and when he got done, he walked to the back of the courtroom and he ran
into mrs. damar. and billy roy pitts apologized to mrs. damar and asked her to forgive him for killing her husband. and she forgave him. and she began to cry. he began to cry. isn't that really what it's all about? redemption. trying to make things right even when they've gone so terribly wrong in the past. may god bless you in your journey toward redemption. thanks so much. [ applause ] this is my contact information in case you want it. and every day on facebook and
twitter i post today in civil rights history, if you're so inclined, and/or you can email me. >> hello. >> good to see you. >> yes, it's a regular "clarion-ledger" reunion. >> it is. >> so i want to start off by asking you a question about one of the biggest stories that you covered along the way, which was the release of the records for the sovereignty commission. >> yes. >> and you mentioned to the audience before, and just to remind folks, it was a state agency. >> yes, it was. >> that was set up specifically to spy on people working toward dismantling white supremacy in the state of mississippi. >> yes. >> but you spent a lot of time
focusing on the sovereignty commission. >> i did. >> and how the state itself had a real serious role in maintaining oppression in mississippi. >> no question. >> and you also mentioned how there are judges, sheriffs, people in all different sorts of positions of power that were working to make sure that not only that people were not punished for killing black people and committing this vigilante violence but also ensuring that they could continue to do this, right? >> yes. >> so talk about how important it was to show how the state, as a government body, played a strong role in making sure that all this could continue to happen, and also maybe for some of the reporters and students in here, talk about how it's important to still make those kind of connections today in journalism. >> sure. i think that was part of what i was trying to do. and i kind of first got these leaks in kind of segments.
i didn't get them all at once in '89. by the end of '89, i loaded up by little honda hatchback with 2,400 pages of sovereignty commission records, i always call it the sovereignty commission greatest hits. though got people fired from their jobs. they would smear them. they would smear civil rights workers with the hope of driving them out of the state or rendering them ineffective and things like that. they spied on medgar evers in 1958 and were trying to, quote, catch him in an illegal act. there were so many things that they did. and of course, just because they wrote it down, didn't make it true. a lot of times they would go and harass someone. of course if you read the record it will be like, oh, we went and talked to so and so. well, no, they didn't just go and talk so and so. the sovereignty commission had two arms. one was a propaganda arm.
and so they would send white speakers who would willingly volunteer and send them up north. and then they would send black speakers, unbeknownst, it wasn't public knowledge, they were being paid. they would go up north and both say the same thing, which would be, oh, we love segregation, we love jim crow, we want to keep it the way it is. but obviously the records themselves reflected what was really going on. and so i think it's very important. the other part, i mentioned the governors heading it, but really the sovereignty commission itself was all the top leaders of state government were a part of the sovereignty commission. it was the lieutenant governor, it was the state treasurer, all the major offices were a part of the sovereignty commission as well as some others as well. in the -- they would share information. i'll give a simple example. so the sovereignty commission spied on mickey schwarmer and his wife rita three months prior
to the klan killing them. so you would think, well, okay, they spied on them. but here's what happened. they did these spy reports on what all they were doing, what they were driving around in, their license tag number, all that kind of stuff, gave it to the meridian police department, which you don't necessarily think anything about that either, except when i tell you this detail, more than half of the people that worked for the meridian police department were in the kkk. in fact, one of the main shooters in the murder party of the three civil rights workers was al wayne roberts whose brother lee was on the meridian police department. so you follow what i'm saying, there was very close connection between the sovereignty commission and -- >> there was almost no distinction. >> correct. >> i want to talk about the storytelling a little bit. and specifically sources, because i know that you have a very strong relationship with
marilee evers that goes beyond just a reporter that covers a trial, right? and i think your work has been really important because if anyone knows the history of "the clarion-ledger," when all of this is happening, when it was owned by the headerman family, we talked about the the state being complicit in allowing some of this brutality to exist. but before it became "the clarion-ledger," it was really a strong proponent of segregation. and when you were doing these stories, 20, 30 years later, it was probably the first time we actually really heard the voices of the survivors of the civil rights people who were killed. so can you talk about how you were able to even develop those relationships when these people were alive and they knew years before that this paper was ignoring everything that was happening and even supporting it, but then later, you were
coming to do these stories? so how were you able to do that, develop those relationships? >> great question. i mean, i wish marilee were here to answer it. i began to develop a relationship with her and her family. i think she trusted me over time. i think initially it's kind of, what's this white boy up to, which i would say too in that context. and very much like you're talking about, the history of "the clarion-ledger" and "jackson daily news," one of the things we did that really helped with that was part of what i got out of the sovereignty commission papers, was information on our own newspaper. and so we did a story on ourselves and exposed what "the clarion-ledger" did back then. they were actually getting sovereignty reports until 1968 directly and they were publishing them verbatim
sometimes and/or they were killing stories or running stories at the request of the sovereignty commission. so we published all that. i mean, that's one of the things i said to the editors, we have to publish this. somebody's going to publish this at some point. i thought we need to do it. and actually i wanted us to do an editorial and apologize. i didn't convince them on that point. i still think it would have been the right thing to do. thing to do. >> so you talked about little earlier, and it seems as if the state of mississippi and other various states are not only trying to express redemption or come to grips with the horrible and violent legacy that they had in terms of civil rights by celebrating history, by acknowledging it, and there is a series of national state markers. the recent opening of the mississippi civil rights museum. actually, acknowledging what happened and trying to celebrate and apple fight in
some sort of way is something that we've seen happen a lot of the southern states. we are part of the redemption and the reconciliation is because there have been actual convictions. >> yes. >> because of the work you've done. can you talk about how you feel about how your work fits into the legacy of the history of mississippi? >> i think what's important, you know, the first thing. before you have reconciliation, you've got to have truth. you've got to have truth. i think it's been part of the problem not the truth hasn't been told. how many students learn about this in school, and that's one of the reasons i do this on my facebook page and twitter page, is because every day, when i post these things, i'm kind of amazed by how many people, both black and white, say i never knew this. so, it is history, as i always put it, it's not just black
history. this is american history, and, i am amazed by how it's just not being taught. the civil rights movement often gets reduced to this, in schools. rosa parks sat down at martin the king stood up, you know what i mean? that is kind of what happens, the way it gets taught. what's gets left out, for example, is rosa parks wasn't actually the first one to refuse to give up her seat. there were four for her. the first one, she was only 15 years old. so, they, together, those four ladies, their work led to the historic lawsuit that resulted in the desegregation of city buses. people don't know their names. to me, that is important.
to not just know the names of march another king, as we should, or rosa parks, as we should, but to know the names and the stories of so many others, and i think the mississippi civil rights museum, i can say this, i feel like it's excellent, and who else has been to the civil rights museum of mississippi? anybody? several have been there. i think it's excellent. among the regional civil rights museums, and one here in d.c. is superb. >> he talked a little about earning the trust of your sources and i thought it was really interesting when you said merly evers and others were wondering what is this why did you trying to do? why should i trust this dude? who is he? so, one of the things our students are thinking about here and we're having them to think consciously about is their position in stories, and their identities and the
intersection of their identities and the power they possess, regardless of what those identities are. and how that could affect the storytelling and the ways that they can even approach people or do approach people. i wonder if you can talk a little about your position as a white journalist, a white man journalist, writing these stories and how that came into play while you are doing this work. >> on one hand, it might have been a detriment from a standpoint of, you know relating to merly evers and others. on the other hand, it was maybe an asset from the perspective of the wind have talked to me by been a black journalist. i had that advantage. you know? i'm a southerner, you know they've got the picture in the dictionary of the white wasp, that would be me. so, you know, i qualify on those accounts. i think you use those to your
advantage and in aspects. i think what happened, what helped me, was merly evers could see that i was honest, and i was trying to tell the truth, and saw the stories i did. so, she trusted me, actually began to trust me quickly once she starts seeing the stories and saw what my quotes of her, our conversations, and that's kind of what happens i think anyways, as a reporter. he began to have these conversations with your sources. this will sound strange, but people who've been locked up no one i'm talking about. you begin to have conversations beyond the story. we begin to find out about them as people and they find out about you as people. i think those are the connections we've got to begin to have before people begin to trust us. so, i mentioned truth asked to come first. any other thing is if it's
possible, we work towards that. then, that's when you begin to have reconciliation. i don't think that can happen before then. until truth is told, until attempted justice or some kind of a men's, then reconciliation can take place. i don't think you could really have it earlier than that. >> i would ask you one more question before we open up to the audience, and that is students who are interested in doing this kind of work. not necessarily civil rights, but social justice and racial justice kind of journalism. what advice do you have for them? i think there are people that they are modeling their careers after. i know, for me, i was a sophomore at jackson state in 1994 during the byron trial and senior work in the paper was inspirational for me. are there any ideas that you can, suggestions you can share with them for things they
probably need to be doing? skills they need to sharpen? or even journalists they should follow and sweet siri storied? >> wow. i don't know if i could answer all at once. i will try my best. for me, personally, it was unseen. i read all the prints. someone had given me the advice to study how they use attribution. that was, i thought, a pretty good piece of advice. i began to do that. that became a premise for me. i think there are so many talented journalists, i know there is a website now, you know, investigating power, which i recommend. go and look at those videos of some tremendously talented journalists. there are a lot of, you know, modern-day ones, like, you know, nicole hannah jones, people like that that do tremendous
work. and essays. i mean, follow the people you like, and who you want to imitate. i think that's what you do. you follow their work, you read their work, you learn from them. they're kind of becoming your teachers that way. i think, sometimes, we think i've got to be formally taught by somebody. you can read somebody's work can be taught by somebody, and that's a good way to begin to learn. okay, here is someone i really like they're writing. what is it, why is it i like the writing? and kind of study it. i think they can learn, students can learn on all levels from reading lots of people's work, hopefully. >> let's open it up to the audience for questions. >> mr. mitchell, thank you for coming here. you touched upon charlottesville.
there was a front page story this weekend, i don't recall if it was a washington post or the new york times, depicting the elusiveness of one sunglasses and one red beard. high resolution pictures, good pictures. could you share insight as to how bad people like that can be so elusive-y in terms of being captured? thank you. >> that's a great question. you know, i don't know. that's probably a question for law enforcement. i don't really understand. i'm like, you can kind of baffled by this whole thing. i don't know. you know, you would think it would be more easily soluble in those situations. the other part is i don't understand in general, sometimes, while enforcement doesn't take advantage of media along those lines, you know? there is a power to be hot, i think sometimes they don't take
advantage. used to see more of that where they would put out photos, sketches, help us find this person, you know that kind of thing. and press would eagerly disseminated. but i don't know the answer for it, no. >> hi, my name is start. i'm a senior here at american university. my question that i have for you is especially being in the midst of, i mean, these cases while they were happening and when they were new conversations. did you have anybody in your life who dropped you because if you are deciding to be an ally to these communities that didn't have the privilege that you had? and also, is there any advice that you could give to others on how to be a good ally? >> that's a great question. i mean, i think yes, overtime,
that happened, you know? one side done the medgar evers case, which other people had seen and gone oh, you're the reporter that worked on such and such. yeah, it does help. it does help to know these other families, as white that family came to me. because of the evers case. they knew i'd worked on the ever's case. thethe main thing with the families, regardless of skin color, is for there to be trust, that when you talk to them, you are quoting them accurately, you're representing their views accurately. all those kinds of things. that is, i think, in my opinion, how you begin to build trust. they see you are not trying to burn them, or misrepresent what they are saying, or things like that. you can, you begin to have these longer conversations, and
you begin to find out what all the family has been going through. and this is the way i think of anything, with sources or whoever. you kind of begin to find as much information as you can without necessarily intending to publish everything they tell you. okay? i do begin to work them on to the record. like there may be something that's happened, or information, i'll give an example. with the vernon damer family, and it's a side, and not that important, but it's interesting. but vernon damer, his father, was actually a white man. and he lived his whole life as a black man. very interesting, right? you know, but that wasn't something they told me the first time i showed up. and that was the story they told me after years of beginning to trust me. but i thought it was a fascinating story. i'm only giving you parts of
that story, but it's very fascinating. vernon damer was the only one who stayed the whole rest of the family moved, left mississippi, and some past for white up north, which is a whole other kind of interesting saga as well. so, those are the kinds of stories you find out overtime, and why do you find that out? because the family trusts you, and he began to share information. when you begin to, do you have all this information, and gradually say, well it is something you'd be comfortable talking about in a news story? you don't instantly jump and say, hey, i'm going to do a story on this. you begin to get them to trust you, like a source. let's take it aside from these families. you go and you talk to a source, let's just say it's a minor interviewing for an article. and they don't want to talk on the record, just talk off the record, in the background, lets
a background. so you've got that information from them and you go back through your quotes, and you find the most innocuous quote they gave you, because people want this information out, otherwise they wouldn't be talking to you and they say you pick the most innocuous coat and go, would you be willing to say that on the record? could i get you to say that on the record? and they go, yeah, ok, yeah, you can put me on that. and you go to the next quote and you go to the next quote and then you go to the quote you really want to get them on the record on. and sometimes, you can move them like that. whereas, if you don't have anything, if they say i'm not going to talk to you at all on the record, you say ok, well i'm not going to talk to you and kind of move. instead, it's better to get the information from them and gradually try to move them onto the record. i think at least to me that's a valuable way of doing.
it's the same thing for these families. you begin to find that information, you don't immediately punish published. he developed that trust, and they trust you enough that they know you will do a good job and they can trust you with it. >> i think we have time for one more question. ne more >> i'd like your perspective as somebody who's observed a lot of this litigation for a long time on the future of prosecution as a remedy for civil rights and other social justice issues. particularly lost to dense understand much of prosecution and civil rights in the late 20th century as mostly the domain of impact litigation organizations and other things, in the past few years or so there seems to be the state-of-the-art progressing towards things like elected offices, municipal prosecutors
days and that sort of thing. can you flush it out for is your understanding what do you think the next ten years of prosecution for civil rights were going to be like? i just want to make sure i'm understanding the question. with regard to white civil rights aspects are you talking about? like the cases i've been working on? or do you mean, are you talking about, like, civilization? i don't know quite what you're talking about. >> i would say the cases you're working on, that's good. yeah, that stay there. >> okay. with criminal prosecutions, i think the window is almost closed. it may be, maybe there's another case out there i don't know about. because here's why. the suspects are dead, or their witnesses are dead and so, and that's why i'm saying you kind of have to move, you move from truth to justice where possible,
and where justice isn't possible, which is what kind of we're talking about in the situation then you have to move on from prosecution. there is no such thing as prosecutions. what do you do in that situation? i think then you have to move -- what did south africa do in this situation? they set up truth and reconciliation. it's an and so the idea behind it in that case was you come forward, you tell the truth about what happened, and we are not going to prosecute. but you had to tell the truth in order to do that. and so i could envision something like that happening at some point. i don't know under what auspices that would be, but i could foresee that with these particular kinds of cases, because i don't see that many other prosecutions happening from this particular era. now, nature that might be, but from the sixties i'm talking about, fifties and sixties. >> well, i think that is about time, now i think it's time for
-- do you mind one more question? okay, well i guess to that, because i don't want to be done exercising over here, and then the gentleman in the back with the head. >> my question is, what do you do when you can't push the source to go on record? that's something extraordinarily consequential. the second part of the question is, five years ago by, ten years ago by, 15 years ago by. but it [inaudible] and if there is there an instance that once you, that's consequential, something that you can't report, and how did you personally handle it as a reporter and, you know, as an individual as well? >> well, to be honest, i haven't had it happen. so i mean, you're talking about something like some huge revelation that i couldn't get someone. i've had some revelations, but not anything that was so huge like a confession or, you know, the different things like that, that you would, you know, they
would, it would tear you up. you know, you would have to go -- you'd feel at some point an obligation as a citizen, almost, to report it. but i haven't had it, so i've been very fortunate. >> hi joey, how are you? >> i'm great! >> in regards to what the gentleman right here was talking about, unfortunately, what about caroline bryant? she's very much alive. >> yeah, she is very much alive. that's a great question. i'll try to answer this. i know i'm supposed to answer this brief, but i'll try my best to answer this, so just follow me on this real quick. okay. so caroline bryant, and this is, the reason we know this, so caroline bryant is the woman who emmett till reportedly wolf with all that, right? and so, she gave a statement to the defense lawyers literally
just, you know, a couple of weeks before the trial of her then husband and his half bother who killed were involved in killing emmett till. so anyway, her original statement to the defense, and we have copies of the notes, because they're in the william bradford huey papers at ohio state, and in that she basically said that he flirted he floated with her, grabbed her hand, asked her for 80, flirted with her, walked out, whistled at her. she told a much different story at trial which was that emmett till basically all but writer. if you want to really kind of boil it down, that's kind of real quick version of that. fast forward so the two pillars -- there were actually more
than that involved -- there were at least four white guys involved. jeremy mylan, right right, leslie mile i'm, the guy who kind of ran that plantation, which is also where emmett till was beaten and killed which was -- william bradford he we's piece i long believed was true. i now believe almost everything in that piece of was a lie. is kind of been guarded regarded for so many years as gospel, and it's obvious the ally, i realize now, almost everything in it, in detail and it. because we know, we can prove otherwise. i mean facts, not just conjecture, so fast forward. caroline bryant was quoted in tim tyson's book as admitting that she light, basically when she testified.
something along those lines. we can't it in some way. this is where it gets crazy. caroline bryant's family says that's not true. and actually tim tyson doesn't have it on tape. so it just becomes a matter of debate that way. i guess to back up a little bit in time, in 2007, when the fbi investigated this at the end, okay in? the 2000s, in 2007, it was presented to a grand majority, a majority black grand jury in mississippi. they voted against indicting caroline bryant. they had a number of choices. one was murder, one was manslaughter, and i think there were some other possibilities. they declined to indict her, they declined to indict henry the nuggets, who was also identified as being involved in the killings.
there were three black men in allegedly involved as well but, let's be honest, they weren't involved voluntarily. i mean, you know, this was not a situation back in those times when it was voluntary. so the question is what evidence is there against caroline bryant. they decided, the grand jury back at that time decided there wasn't enough evidence. and i know the fbi has been investigating the very thing i talked about earlier, about tyson's book, which she said it, whether she didn't say it, all these kinds of things. so it becomes a legal question, those, the law people would know better about than me. but it's a question becomes is there enough evidence to prosecute her? in hindsight, this is easy to say. in hindsight much would have happened is the feds should prosecuted her for lying to the fbi because she told the fbi the exact same story that she testified to in 55. and that would have been the
easier road to take. that unfortunately didn't happen and i'm afraid nothing is going to happen to her. so at least nothing that i've heard so far you, know, suggests that. should she be prosecuted is a great question. and it's a matter of evidence and improving that and we'll see what the feds do but if i'm giving you my guess i don't think they're going to do anything more than they did back in 2007. >> well, jerry mitchell, thank you again for sharing your incredible -- [applause] thank you for sharing your incredible and transformative storytelling with us, and for reminding us to live fearlessly, not only in our journalism work but also in our lives. and i'd also like to give a special thanks to everyone who helped put this together from the event planning to the folks who are running the lights and taking care of this facility,
and all the work that has been gone on to this. but before you depart, i want to introduce gordon andrew fletcher, who is the president of the american university black alumni association, which along with the ir w and the sec, the school of communication, is the sponsor of our program tonight. mr. fletcher is a two-time alumnus of the au school of public affairs, but with the bachelor of arts and a much better degree. he also holds a law degree from follow florida a&m university, a historically black college, and gordon is a grants manager at the u.s. department of commerce and services community in washington as a representative for anc five eight eight zero eight, in addition to his service to the university. thank you gordon, for being with us, and now he's going to leave us with a few words. >> yes. thank you so much for that introduction, and again, good
evening everyone. my name is gordon andrew fletcher. excuse, me i'm a little under the weather, so please bear with me a little bit. on behalf of the american university, my alumni black alumni association, we would like to thank you all for coming out tonight and definitely want to give a special thank you to mr. jerry mitchell. we very much appreciate your chair trail blazing work around civil rights and for all people, not just for any one person, but for all people. and american university, we stand firmly upon the institution's commitment to diversity, inclusion and mutual respect. as the chair of the black alumni association i must say that we are very pleased to cosponsor this event tonight with the investigative reporting workshop and school of communication. the aa's mission is to provide alumni and black students with networking and professional development as well as to uplift the ebony [inaudible]
and while positively impacting the comptroller of american university. for more information on how to get universe involved, please pick up a postcard at the reception or talk with [inaudible] . i'm proud to be an avid eagle and applaud all our almond eye and groups [inaudible] for the commitment to eu by enhancing the experience of current students with great events such as the one tonight. we invite ought to join us outside the theory outside the theater in the fire for the reception. and there again, thank you very much. >> [applause]
>> next on american history tv, "assignment washington - the correspondent marino de medici". this 1977 u.s. information agency film profiles an italian newspaper journalist as he goes about his day-to-day duties in washington, and covers the 1976 presidential contest between president gerald ford and challenger jimmy carter. ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪