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The Journalist and the Murderers

At the same time, Mitchell illuminates the racism in the broader culture that made egregious acts of Negrophobic violence imaginable and, in the minds of many onlookers, tolerable if not defensible. He recalls, for instance, a line from a stump speech by Paul Johnson Jr., the successful gubernatorial candidate in Mississippi in 1963, who asked delighted audiences: “You know what N.A.A.C.P. stands for? Niggers, apes, alligators, coons and possums.” And he notes that a prosecutor in one of De La Beckwith’s trials refused to address the victim’s widow as “Mrs.” Evers for fear that he might anger the jury, since, under Jim Crow, such courtesies were routinely withheld from African-Americans. That same prosecutor, Bill Waller, a future governor of the state, attempted to weed racists from the jury by asking, “Do you think it’s a crime to kill a nigger?”

Brave, bracing and instructive, “Race Against Time” is, on occasion, insufficiently probing. Mitchell repeats, and appears to believe, allegations that the F.B.I. essentially deputized a mobster to shake down a frightened Klansman for information. Yet he offers no assessment of this illegal intimidation. Nor does he, in recounting the F.B.I.’s infiltration of the Klan, alert readers to the fact that the agency was simultaneously engaged in numerous illegal encroachments on the civil liberties of other Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (The F.B.I. justified its intrusions on freedom of association by citing suspicion of lawbreaking, but we now know that it routinely violated the rights of individuals and groups simply because they were deemed to be ideologically obnoxious.)

Moreover, it’s inadequate to dismiss casually the dissenting opinion of three Mississippi Supreme Court justices who argued that a retrial of Byron De La Beckwith decades after his second mistrial would constitute a violation of various rights. Mitchell notes that one of the dissenting justices had been a leader of the segregationist Citizens’ Council. But what about the substance of the justice’s argument? In the retrial of De La Beckwith and others, were irregularities tolerated because of the obviousness of the defendant’s guilt and embarrassment over previous law-enforcement failures? If so, was such tolerance justified under the circumstances — with time running out to punish murderers before they expired?

There is more to say about what those belated prosecutions of civil-rights-era crimes accomplished beyond their partial settling of accounts for perpetrators and victims’ families.

An excellent work that can profitably be read in conjunction with “Race Against Time” is Renee C. Romano’s “Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights” (2014), which offers a rigorous assessment of the atonement prosecutions. No single book about such an expansive topic could possibly serve as a comprehensive account, and “Race Against Time” admirably assumes the heavy burden that Jerry Mitchell takes on; it warrants praise, gratitude and a wide audience.

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