In pursuit of American justice | Opinion

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Cover image of “Race Against Time”

You could almost hear the collective exhale in our nation on Wednesday following the guilty verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbery trial. But in looking back on that case it’s also sobering to realize just how many things had to happen to get to that verdict.

First, it took a relentless campaign waged by Arbery’s grieving mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, to bring attention to her son’s execution. Second, her campaign eventually led to the release of the cell phone video shot by one of the defendants —now convicts — William Bryan.

In what they thought would be evidence to exonerate them, the video functioned to do just the opposite. And third, it took dogged local reporting by The Brunswick News’ Larry Hobbs to keep the story alive and to hold local officials accountable

Let’s be frank: it shouldn’t take all of this to get justice in America in 2021.

In thinking about the Arbery verdict, it’s hard not to think about the myriad cases — who knows how many? — in which an innocent victim didn’t have fearless surrogates to pursue a just outcome. But sometimes, alas, it takes just that to bring executioners to account for their crimes.

One such surrogate will visit Tallahassee at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 1 at Midtown Reader. Jerry Mitchell, who for more than 30 years worked as a journalist for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi will be giving a talk at Midtown Reader based on his recent memoir, Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era.

A MacArthur Genius award-winner and the recipient of countless journalism accolades, we follow Mitchell as he pursues justice in the cases of the driveway murder of Medgar Evers, the house bombing of Vernon Dahmer Sr., the four young Black girls dynamited at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the police-led lynching of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner.

The memoir’s title is most apt: the Klansmen in all four cases who conspired to murder were nearing the end of their lives when Mitchell begins his quest to bring them to account — in a courtroom, not a confessional.

Mitchell’s stories are often stranger than fiction, whether it’s where the rifle used in the Evers murder eventually turns up, the bizarre dinner hosted by his murderer, Bryon de la Beckwith, or the lie about watching televised wrestling offered as an alibi by Bobby Frank Cherry in the Birmingham case.

Mitchell’s reporting is not done just in the dusty archives of a Mississippi library — though he does his due diligence there. More times than not he’s meeting secretly with an ex-Klansmen-with-a-conscience, not yet ready to meet his maker. Not surprisingly, his life is threatened more than once as his reporting often leads him to an inner-sanctum of white supremacy enforced by lethal violence.

Mitchell’s fascinating story reminds us that American justice does in fact run through a courtroom, but getting to that place often (still) requires a very patient and fearless pursuit.

Davis Houck, Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies in the School of Communication, Florida State University

Davis Houck is Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies in the School of Communication at Florida State University.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: In pursuit of American justice | Opinion

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