Watering the seeds

“It’s one thing to have a great story to tell. But it’s another thing to have it told by a great storyteller. Jerry Mitchell has written this book with power, talent, and conscience.”

–Rick Bragg, author of All Over but the Shoutin’

Harding University has produced many good writers over the years, maybe even a few more eloquent than Jerry “Boo” Mitchell, but none of them has done more good in this world practicing the craft.

It was no secret to Ocular Fusion readers back in the day that I am an unapologetic “Boo” Mitchell fanboy. If you want evidence you can read this, and this. He really needs no introduction to most, but if you’re a little behind, that should get you caught up. 

Recently, Jerry finally finished his much-anticipated book, Race Against Time  (Really, Jerry? You could have fooled me!) a slow-roasted, aged-to-perfection gem of a tome chronicling his career as an investigative reporter helping solve civil rights murder cold cases.

It had the writing world all atwitter upon its release earlier this year. The back cover of the dust jacket is graced with the blurbs of some pretty heavy hitters (see Rick Bragg’s praise above), but if you stop there, you won’t get the full picture.

Consider, for instance, what John Grisham has been doing with his time while riding out the pandemic in his garage.

But let’s get back to Rick Bragg for a second. Rick is one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and along with Jerry, one of my “muses.” As I said, I am an unrepentant “Boo” Mitchell fanboy–but I’m a pint-sized one compared to Rick.

Consider this: I’m standing in a book signing line after listening to Rick Bragg lecture at the Princess Theatre in Decatur, Alabama in December, 2010. I’m holding my copy of All Over but the Shoutin’ in my hand and strategizing on how to get a little extra face time with Rick once it’s my turn. I know Rick knows Jerry, and in fact, Jerry was in Rick’s wedding. I’ll drop Boo’s name and, voilà!, maybe he’ll take a few extra seconds to chat and write something nice in my book. Perfect plan.

I’m a little starstruck when I finally sidle up to the table where he’s sitting, but I manage to get the words out. His eyes get real round, real quick, and his pupils start to dilate like I had just hit him with a drop of atropine. He slowly rises, walks around the end of the table (his gaze fixed on me the whole time), grabs me by the elbow, and pulls me aside.

I’m starting to get a little concerned. The Princess Theatre worker tasked with riding shotgun at the table and shooing away the hangers-on is getting concerned. The people in the line behind me wondering what all the fuss is about and why they are having to wait so long are starting to get very concerned.

Rick places his hands on my shoulders, looks me square in the eyes, and says, “Jerry Mitchell is my favorite person in the whole. wide. world.”

Now that’s a blurb! I thought, next time I need a hard-to-get reservation at a restaurant, I know what to do.

I spent some time in those old Ocular Fusion posts agitating and stirring the pot among Harding alumni to vote for him for Distinguished Alumnus, and in 2010, we finally reached critical mass. I even traveled over to Searcy during October for Homecoming to witness the deed and make sure they didn’t back out at the last minute and give it to someone else. 

I had planned to protest if they reneged. Maybe sit down by that statue of “Uncle Bud” and start yelling, wade into the Lily Pool and hold up a sign, light some firecrackers, I don’t know, but something. 

The night before he was to receive the award, Jerry held a session with students from the Department of Communication in the old Administration Auditorium–the same one in which Dr. George S. Benson had stood and made his infamous, racist remarks about “the black birds and blue birds, the blue jays and mockingbirds” not “mixing and mingling together” in January 1958, and just a few years later in September 1963, announced that Harding would immediately be desegregated.

Jerry talked about his days at Harding “raking the muck” for the school newspaper The Bison, regaled them with some of his favorite anecdotes about the Klansmen he had helped put away, and encouraged them to go forth and write and report and make a difference in the world.

They sat in rapturous attention, taking it all in. So did I.

As we walked together across the Front Lawn afterwards, I told him about those seeds that had been planted in my mind by Bill Floyd’s essay in Voices of Concern and the large, creeping plant of an idea that was putting down roots and starting to spread its tendrils like kudzu. 

I wasn’t sure if any of it was enough to make a good story, and I was clueless as to how to start.

Jerry said, “I think that’s fascinating. I never heard that story. I mean, I knew about ‘black birds and blue birds,’ but not that part. I think you should go for it!”

“So, if you were in my shoes, what would you do first?” I asked.

Jerry thought for a moment and replied, “Find Bill Floyd. Find Bill Floyd, and everything else will start to fall into place.”