Book: “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era” by Jerry Mitchell
Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, February 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: On June 21, 1964, more than twenty Klansmen murdered three civil rights workers. The killings would become known as the “Mississippi Burning” case and even though the killers’ identities, including the sheriff’s deputy, were an open secret, no one was charged with murder in the months and years that followed.
It took forty-one years before the mastermind was brought to trial and finally convicted for the three innocent lives he took. If there is one man who helped pave the way for justice, it is investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell.
In Race Against Time, Mitchell takes readers on the twisting, pulse-racing road that led to the reopening of four of the most infamous killings from the days of the civil rights movement, decades after the fact. His work played a central role in bringing killers to justice for the assassination of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and the Mississippi Burning case. His efforts have put four leading Klansmen behind bars, years after they thought they had gotten away with murder.
Review: Something that the United States hasn’t quite come to terms with is that our country is still a very deeply racist place. Our country was built on the backs of slaves, and the reverberations of that system are still being felt today, even though we don’t want to admit it. In the 1960s during the first Civil Rights Movement in this country, a number of people who were fighting for justice and rights for Black people were murdered for their values and actions, and for many years many of these cases went unsolved. Jerry Mitchell, a investigative journalist, was struck by the cold case of the Mississippi Burning Murders, in which three civil rights workers were murdered by upwards of twenty Klansmen, and were never given justice. That was the start of his career in investigating cold cases around murders during The Civil Rights Era. “Race Against Time” is his memoir about his work around said cases. And frankly, it’s necessary reading for any true crime fans, or anyone interested in justice for those who died for Civil Rights.
As one can imagine, “Race Against Time” is intense, dark, and harrowing. Mitchell pursues leads in a few notorious, recently solved cases of murders of people that Klan members killed to intimidate and silence those who were fighting for racial justice. Mitchell made deep connections to the family members left behind, and as he devotes each section of the book to these cases, you see how he earned the trust of those people, as well as doggedly pursued the probably perpetrators. His writing style is what you’d expect for a seasoned and well respected reporter, and his narrative flows in a very consumable way. Along with that, he really knows how to convey the pain and hope of the family members, and the fear and tension he was feeling when he did meet with suspects and Klansmen, having to keep his cool as they not only say horrifically racist things, but also brag about violence. I really appreciated seeing all of the work that he did, as well as his takes on how the court cases went once they did eventually get to court, decades after the fact. The cases he covers I mostly knew, but seeing this perspective he lays out as opposed to the ones in American History books I had encountered in my past was fresh and insightful. He doesn’t mince words about the evil of white supremacy and how it drives The Klan, and it made for a difficult, but important read.
What struck me the most as I was reading this book is that while this is arguably Jerry Mitchell’s memoir on his work in investigative journalism regarding the murders of Civil Rights figures, it is decidedly centered on the victims and their families as opposed to him. Sure, he talks about the various things he had to do, like putting himself in harms way by interviewing Klansmen and then exposing them. Or talking about the fears that his family had during some of this time. But it always reads as him putting the victims and those they left behind first, and delving into their backgrounds, their stories, and their truths. While I definitely worried about Mitchell on some of his assignments, I was mostly hoping for the best outcomes possible for people like Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, and the Four Little Girls of the 16th Street Church bombing. Mitchell devotes time and pages to all of their stories, and really peels back the way that bigotry and racism hindered justice for so long, as well as exposing the violent racists who almost got away with murder. But it never feels like he’s patting himself on the back or tooting his own horn, and is also quick to point out that there are SO MANY cases that have gone without justice over the years. Mitchell is here to remind us that justice is far from done, and that as a country we still have a long way to go when it comes to righting the wrongs of our racist past and present.
“Race Against Time” is necessary reading when it comes to The Civil Rights Movement, and also a great case study in the importance of investigation journalism. There is still work to do, folks, and people like Mitchell can show us effective ways to do it.
Rating 8: A fascinating and harrowing memoir that centers the victims instead of the author, “Race Against Time” is a must read for those who seek justice against white supremacy.
“Race Against Time” is included on the Goodreads lists “True Crime on Tap”, and “White Power, Terrorism, White Supremacy, and White Nationalist Movements in the United States (nonfiction)”.