Skip to main content

Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era

Review

Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era

There is no statute of limitations when the crime is murder. This compelling fact was the impetus that fired up the investigative instincts of Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for Jackson, Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger. In this noteworthy account, he hones in on the fine details of four horrific unsolved crimes committed in the Deep South in the nascent years of the Civil Rights era.

In 1963, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated, and the bombing of a church in Birmingham caused the deaths of four little girls attending Sunday school. In 1964, three civil rights activists --- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner --- disappeared while working in Mississippi. And in 1966, a firebombing killed Vernon Dahmer, an NAACP member and a voting rights proponent. In each case, there had been investigations, and, in some instances, trials but no convictions. Those accused of the crimes and exonerated were men with association or membership in the Ku Klux Klan, who boasted of their hatred of blacks and their dedication to keeping them from voting, and, if necessary, eliminating them. As was said, it was commonplace to kill black people in the south, a “tradition” that allowed these men to act without the slightest trace of remorse.

"Despite the many barriers he faced, Mitchell, who writes with the verve and immediacy befitting his newsman’s craft, was determined and remarkably patient."

With the release of Mississippi Burning in 1988, Mitchell was struck by the fact that the killings of three young men --- the film’s central focus --- were as yet unsolved, though at least 20 locals were known to be implicated. With the passage of time, most if not all of the perpetrators of these and other outrages might die, or already might have passed on, with no retribution for their heinous acts. Mitchell leads the reader through the long, circuitous paths he followed to identify these criminals and see that they were brought to justice. In so doing, he underscores the difficulties of his work: evidence suppressed or destroyed, old lies retold despite new, refuting proof, and the simple reluctance of neighbors and allies of the accused to have their culture maligned, to open the graves that kept their secrets safe.

Despite the many barriers he faced, Mitchell, who writes with the verve and immediacy befitting his newsman’s craft, was determined and remarkably patient. He toiled away over years and left no tiny clue unexamined in his zeal to accomplish his goal: the trials and convictions of four evildoers, and the relief and gratitude of families and friends who had given up hope of ever seeing these men get the punishment they deserved. He is diligent in reminding us that all of these despicable acts were motivated by the wish of a small, embattled group of white men to rid their world of people of color.

As Mitchell states in his Epilogue, “I have long thought of the work that journalists and authorities have undertaken as a pursuit of justice. But the more time I’ve spent on these cases, the more I’ve come to believe that they are just as much a pursuit of memory.”

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on February 14, 2020

Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era
by Jerry Mitchell

  • Publication Date: February 4, 2020
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1451645139
  • ISBN-13: 9781451645132