June 11, 2021

“Peoples, I invite you to ask yourself, just what is a runner’s world? Ask yourself who deserves to run? Who has the right? Ask who’s a runner?”

These are some of the poignant questions Mitchell S. Jackson directs at the Runner’s World audience, in “Twelve Minutes and a Life,” an essay the freelance writer penned about Ahmaud Arbery. On Feb. 23, 2020, 25-year-old Arbery — a Black man — was pursued by armed white men and fatally shot while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia.

Jackson, a columnist for Esquire and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, was named a co-winner of a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for the essay, which is a striking portrait of the former high school football standout. The account, published on June 18, 2020, is filled with radiant prose and draws from reporting and a bit of Jackson’s own personal experience: He described himself as one of the “rarest of Americans,” a Black Oregonian, and also wrote about the whiteness of the American pastime that is recreational running. 

“Oh. My. God!!!!!!!!!!!!” Jackson tweeted on Friday, as a quote tweet to the official announcement from the Pulitzer Prize account.

“I am stunned,” he told Poynter a few hours after learning about his win. “It really feels surreal.”

Jackson said he doubted if this really happened and never received so many comments on Twitter, so he imagined “that this is real now.” To celebrate, Jackson said he’s going to have a nice dinner and drink some champagne.

“Twelve Minutes and a Life” is also part-commentary and part-history; Jackson touched on the emergence of jogging in the 1960s, a time when forces like redlining discouraged Black Americans from reaping the benefits of the activity. Though the demographics of runners have become more diverse over the last 50 years, he noted in the long read, “jogging, by and large, remains a sport and pastime pitched to privileged whites.”

“Ahmaud Arbery, by all accounts, loved to run but didn’t call himself a runner. That is a shortcoming of the culture of running. That Maud’s jogging made him the target of hegemonic white forces is a certain failure of America,” Jackson wrote. “Check the books—slave passes, vagrancy laws, Harvard’s Skip Gates arrested outside his own crib—Blacks ain’t never owned the same freedom of movement as whites.”

In the essay, Jackson also delivered a gripping and clear account, with time stamps, of Arbery’s final jog before he was murdered. At 1:08 p.m. on the day, Jackson wrote of Arbery beginning to jog. A man surveilling the 25-year-old told a 911 dispatcher that he was running:

“Okay, what is he doing?” says the dispatcher. “He’s running down the street,” says the man. 

Readers learned about Arbery — whose nickname was Maud — from family and friends, how as a boy he was a popular kid, how he’d scout the neighborhood in search of basketball rims with his best friend, Akeem “Keem” Baker, how he’d help his sister take care of the Yorkshire terrier their parents gifted her. Arbery’s older brother, Buck, introduced him to football and Arbery began playing peewee football as a running back and linebacker.

On Thursday, Runner’s World won a National Magazine Award in feature writing for Jackson’s “Twelve Minutes and a Life” essay from the American Society of Magazine Editors. Founded in 1966, the National Magazine Awards are generally considered the most prestigious journalism prizes for magazines and websites.

After his essay was published online, Jackson posted on his Instagram page about being asked by Runner’s World to write a profile of Arbery, an assignment the writer described as daunting but also an opportunity to honor a young man gone from the world too soon. He thanked many people, including members of Arbery’s family and friends for being so open to him.

Jackson’s writing has appeared in Time, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, according to his website. He is also an award-winning author who wrote “Survival Math,” in which he explored his tumultuous youth in Portland, Oregon, and the autobiographical debut novel “The Residue Years,” for which he won a Whiting Award and other accolades. According to his website, Jackson is a formerly incarcerated person who now advocates for social justice and does outreach through visits at prisons and youth facilities. His next novel, titled “John of Watts,” is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

No arrests were made for months after the shooting death of Arbery. Two men, Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, were later charged with murder and aggravated assault. The man who filmed the death, William Bryan, was arrested weeks later and charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. According to The New York Times, the three men were also indicted on federal hate crime charges and attempted kidnapping.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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