“It surprises me that people talk to me. Everyone rats on everyone else. One series began with a cell phone call from an inmate in prison. The corrections commissioner was indicted ten days after the story for taking over $2 million in bribes. It is exciting to dig and find things at the end of the rabbit trail. You have to run down them. Finding the gun that killed civil rights leader Medgar Evers was one of the wildest stories I have been around. Someone tipped us off about the location and we didn’t believe it, but we knew we had to check it out. That case was impossible odds but everything that could have happened to solve that case happened.
I am curious but don’t chase sirens down the street. I want to know what people are hiding and what corruption is going on. Bad guys getting away with things gets me and I want to expose, push or embarrass people into doing the right thing. I collect string and it comes to a point I have what I need to do a story and something to hang my hat on. I collect different piles of string at the same time.
I got a phone call from a woman asking me if I would be interested in writing about a serial killer living in Mississippi. Of course I would. Her daughter disappeared years ago. She was married to this guy and other women connected to him also disappeared. It was odd but didn’t add up. She called one day and said she was going to confront him. Great. There was my story so I went with her. He lived in Montpelier, a remote area north of Starkville. The gate was locked and we hopped over it. The weeds were 20 feet high. There were two trailers and I was trying to take in the scenery. The back window was missing so she crawled in the trailer and then opened the door so I could see in. She was rummaging around and started throwing out machetes and swords. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ She had file folders full of stories and a copy of the autopsy report. I sent it to a pathologist who found bruises and scars and I knew we had a story. Fifty years after it happened, Felix Vail was charged with murder. He killed three women for sure.
Injustice is baked into me from my upbringing. The sense of right and wrong. The civil rights cases are the height of injustice. Not just that they got away with murder but everyone knew they got away with it. Getting to know the families is the biggest reward and giving them justice and a voice. I have been so blessed. It has been an incredible experience and I am writing a book about the civil rights cold cases called Race Against Time. The hate that causes this has never gone away, it just manifests itself in different ways.
I was on Stephen Colbert’s television show a few years ago and he asked, ‘What were you doing in high school, writing about the lunches?’ I did. We had 30-minute lunches but we had open lunch. There wasn’t any place close and kids would speed like bats out of hell to get to lunch and back. We got the school to take 2 minutes from each class and add it to lunch. That is where I learned the power of the press. I write for a hobby. I write for a living. It’s what I do.
I am also starting a nonprofit, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. I want to change hearts and minds in Mississippi. We will take on spending for education, poverty and the criminal justice system. We will expose corruption and push Mississippi to be better. We will give local papers the photos, copy and videos for free. Telling the truth is so needed. We are raising money now and trying to get a million dollars to get started. We want to hire other top investigators and have college interns and young reporters as fellows for a year. I hope we can help make newspapers stronger again. They need content and people have to come in and fill the gap.
You get driven by trying to correct the past and making things a little better today. We dehumanize by making someone we see as less than us or as a monster. The writer Sam Kean said,’Before we kill with our weapons, we kill with our words.’ Dehumanizing gives yourself permission to destroy someone literally or figuratively. Partisan politics is bad and people are going to circle the wagons and defend their guy no matter what he says or does. Or, if the other side does something right, the motives have to be evil. Dehumanization comes from the fear of losing control and losing power. We have to get beyond partisan politics to see each other beyond the color of skin or religion and see them as a human being like us. The press can play a role in that and tell stories and help people see things differently.
I ask people what would you die for? What I am doing is my cause. I have received death threats from the Klan. There is a speech I give to students about the unexpected gift of living fearlessly. Not living without fear, but living beyond fear. You have to live fearlessly wherever you are. For a student being harassed or someone rejected for the color of your skin. People may hate you or try to kill you, but you have to stand up for what is right anyway.”