Jerry Mitchell, MacArthur Fellow 2009
Pardon me, but does the goofy-looking nerd in the suspenders and top hat reading Mother Goose look like the type of guy who would strike fear in the hearts of murderous Ku Klux Klansmen?
Um, no, I don’t think so.
And if you had asked any of us who attended Harding University in the early 1980s the same question and what we thought of the future prospects of Jerry “Boo” Mitchell, first-class clown, favorite chapel announcer and author of the somewhat subversive “Fifth Column” which appeared weekly in the school newspaper The Bison, we would have likely laughed and said something like “high school speech teacher,” or “radio talk show host,” anything, really, other than the Civil Rights version of Gabriel Van Helsing.
After all, it’s one thing to poke some holes in Harding’s conservative bubble and to expose what’s really in that latest lump of mystery meat served up in Pattie Cobb cafeteria. But to help put the killer of Medgar Evers behind bars? Well, that’s a hole different pile of muck altogether.
Even Boo was somewhat circumspect when sizing up his potential in the school yearbook back in 1981: “With my speech major, I plan on being unemployed.” Byron De La Beckwith wished he had been. If he was still around, he’d probably be the first to tell you that it’s the quiet and unassuming ones that you’ve really got to watch.
You see, Jerry went on to an award-winning career as a reporter for the The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi where he developed a passion and knack for investigating and re-opening “cold cases” from the Civil Rights era and bringing to justice murderous bigots who for decades had gotten off scot-free. First De La Beckwith, Evers’ murderer, in 1994, and subsequently former Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers for the fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, Bobby Cherry for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed 4 young girls, and Edgar Ray Killen for his role in the murder of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Cheney and Andrew Goodman.
For his efforts, Jerry was nominated as a 2006 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for beat reporting, but that was a mere warm-up compared to his latest accolade. On September 22nd, Jerry was named as one of 24 recipients of the uber-prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (aka, “Genius Grant”) from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. According to the Foundation website, the award is based on an individual’s “exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work,” and is “an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential.”
The award, likely the highest honor ever bestowed on a Harding graduate, is worth $500,000. What that means is that Jerry can now punch his own ticket; write the book that’s begging to be written, or perhaps take a sabbatical and dive head long into some more cold cases he’s been itching to look into.
It’s 500,000 more reasons for Ku Klux Klansmen to pee in their pants, and 500,000 more reasons for Harding University to finally get around to inviting him back to campus to speak on a very large platform.
I was pleased to see Jerry get a shout-out in Liz Howell’s most recent alumni newsletter, but Harding needs to go even further, throw out the black and gold carpet, and give this man a homecoming the school and her students will never forget. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to hear that there’s a lot of scrambling going on to do just that.
And I hope that all this hubbub will someday lead to Jerry receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award that he so richly deserves. I know one of the criteria for that award is excellence in “kingdom work.” Considering that theologian N.T. Wright describes one of the signs of the advancement of God’s kingdom as a “world put to rights,” I think Jerry’s life work–bringing murderers to justice and providing cups of cool water to the widows and orphans of their victims–fits that qualification to a tee.
Jerry recently had a Skype interveiw with some Harding media ethics students in which he spoke about how he integrates his faith with journalism. His thoughts on truth, I think, cut across all professions:
“Well, there is such a thing as truth. I think that’s what our job is as journalists, to be committed to that truth. Journalism, in its ideal, is one of those noble professions, because we’re truth seekers, both as reporters and as Christians. What we’re trying to do, in a very simple manner, is move toward that.”
What is truth? Jerry Mitchell would say it’s never stopping until the right thing is done. It’s the kind of thing that sets victims of injustice free.
But if you’re an aging Klansman cowering and quivering in some backwoods corner of the Deep South, it’s the kind of thing that can land you behind bars for good.
Well done, Boo. Your classmates are very, very proud of you.
Mike the Eyeguy
Liz S. on Facebook says:
“Loved the article! I still shake my head and smile when I think of Boo being that goofy guy at Harding and what he’s become. Who’d of thunk it! :)”
Very cool! Thanks for sharing this.
Good story – especially in a day when, instead of just presenting facts and letting the public make up its own mind, journalists and news media push a certain political agenda.
Mike the Eyeguy
I think generally speaking that top shelf print journalists like Jerry outperform cable network news, whether you’re talking about CNN, MSNBC or Fox News. They tend to be a little more thorough and sober.
Excellent. There is good writing all around this joint.
Mike the Eyeguy
By “Go Bison” do you mean “Go Jerry” (the individual Bison) OR the whole herd that is either presently in Searcy or at some time in the past has grazed in Searcy OR all shaggy, even-toed ungulates within the subfamily Bovinae, regardless of tribe, denomination or athletic affiliation?
Hey, I’m just as shocked as anybody …
Mike the Eyeguy
Hey, Boo, nice of you stop by. Of course you know I was simply writing for effect up there in the early paragraphs, acting all surprised and what not. Anyone with half a brain cell who watched you rake the muck in “Hardingburg” back in the day knew you were destined for bigger and better things. 😉
Seriously, man, congrats. Keep up the great work.
Hey, thanks! And please pass on my best to everybody else at Harding … and anybody else reading …
I’m still stunned. Keep thinking they’re going to call and say they made some kind of mistake.
All my best to everybody!
Great article! Obviously, I knew he was destined for greatness, as I was able to see beyond the orange suspenders. Those suspenders still crack our children up! I am just thankful to God that I had the brains to marry him!
Mike the Eyeguy
Karen, thank you for your kind comment, and congratulations to you as well. I can only imagine what a wild ride this has been for all of you over the years.
Yes, Boo’s orange suspenders were visible from one end of The Front Lawn to the other. Inquiring minds want to know: a) Does he still have them? and b)If so, does he (Heaven forbid) still pull them out and put them on when he’s feeling a little wild and crazy?
If you want to wait and answer those questions until after they send the check, I understand completely.
He wore them less when we started dating as I threatened to buy a set of my own. The black hat he wore even after we married and then it became a Halloween customer for me and later for our kids. I archived the suspenders several weeks ago while cleaning our adult daughter’s room. I didn’t have the heart to throw them out. These days wild and crazy for him is turning up his music loud. I always felt a little guilty prying the suspenders away from him.
Mike the Eyeguy
This is so awesome. I feel like Bill Moyers. 🙂
Congratulations! I wrote you an e-mail but wonder if you got it at the clarion address.
I had you in some class but cannot remember which one. I was proud of you then for your independent thinking and hopeful that you (like me) might be a Democrat!
Our daughter Ann wants to get in contact with you about a project she is undertaking (putting Bright and Morning Star into a script). Our daughter Bonnie sent me this link. Our son Robert got one of those Alumni Awards I think at the same time you got one. These were the departmental ones.
Evan has several serious health issues but still fondly remembers you, Boo.
Best wishes, Betty Thornton Ulrey
Hey, Mrs. Ulrey!
I remember your class fondly. I think it was on journalism history or the like. I also enjoyed the classes I took with your husband. Please pass on my best to him.
Yes, you can e-mail me, or anyone else is welcome to at:
My phone number, which anyone is welcome to call, is 601.961.7064.
Patti Jo (Dillard) White
I’m a big Boo Mitchell fan! I still remember the night I was just relaxing at home, watching Dateline on TV, when suddenly there was Boo’s face on the bigscreen!! I’ve always been proud to know him, and am glad that he’s still the same great guy. Thanks, Boo, for all your hard work, and your great attitude through all of it. We’re proud to be your friends!!
Mike the Eyeguy
FYI, If you want to keep up with “All Things Boo Mitchell” check out the “Friends of Jerry ‘Boo’ Mitchell” Facebook page:
Go back a few yrs. before college and if you’d known Boo in Junior High you would never have suspected anyone would fear the fun loving unassuming kid we knew then. Very proud of him and standing up for what he feels is right and truthful.
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