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Mississippi hurting: lynching, murder, and the judge

Last week marked two important events in the unfinished story of southern racial violence. On 10 February, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative released Lynching in America, an unflinching report that documents 3,959 black victims of mob violence in twelve southern states between 1877 and 1950. The same day, a US District Court judge handed down sentences in the federal government’s first prosecution in Mississippi under the Shephard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. If not for the sentencing remarks that Judge Carlton Reeves delivered to three participants in the June 2011 killing of James Craig Anderson, perhaps no one would be talking about these events in the same breath. They should.

On a summer night three and a half years ago, a group of young whites from Brandon, Mississippi drove into nearby Jackson to “fuck with some niggers.” They attacked James Craig Anderson, a 48-year-old black autoworker, in a motel parking lot. A security camera captured the assault. As the beaten and bloodied victim staggered away, eighteen-year-old Daryl Dedmon revved his Ford pickup, hopped the curb, and crushed Anderson under the wheels as he sped off. Dedmon, already serving a life sentence for capital murder, sat alongside two accomplices as Judge Reeves declared that the three men — and seven others yet to be sentenced — “ ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi … causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again.”

Lynch mobs, the judge continued, had stained Mississippi’s soil with the blood of hundreds of black victims. The EJI report, which the judge referenced briefly in his remarks, tallies 576 dead between 1877 and 1950. That count stops short of a rash of racial killings in the Magnolia State that prompted the NAACP to release its 1955 pamphlet, M Is For Mississippi and Murder. It does not include civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, who were killed the same year — 1964 — that Reeves was born. But the judge invoked the three by name, along with other well-known martyrs and just a sampling of the hundreds of lesser-known black Mississippians who died at the hands of the mob.

Lynching_of_Laura_Nelson_and_her_son_2
The lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson on 25 May 1911 in Okemah, Oklahoma. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Judge Reeves needed look no further than Rankin County, home to Anderson’s assailants, for “lesser-known” names. He could have mentioned Stanley Hayes, a black farmhand gunned down by a Brandon mob in 1899, or any of the eight other Rankin County victims tallied by the EJI’s new report. Since June 2011, media outlets have pondered why Brandon, relatively prosperous and disproportionately white by Mississippi standards, became an incubator for a latter-day lynch mob. Defensive locals have fired back that “there is nothing wrong with Brandon,” and increasingly tight-lipped town officials dismiss the attack as an “isolated” incident. Indeed, in Mississippi’s long and bloody history, Brandon is decidedly normal — just another “lynch town” that would rather do anything than faces its past and its echoes in the present.

By placing Anderson’s killing in a longer history of racial terror, Judge Reeves tore through the barrier between past and present. It is a wall that the powerful and privileged in Mississippi worked long and hard to build. Just a generation ago, in a US District Court, the state of Mississippi squandered thousands of taxpayer dollars in a futile attempt to keep a history textbook out of public school classrooms because it contained, among other things, a photograph of a lynching. Last week, the second African American ever appointed to the state’s federal courts quoted from his former professor’s recently published history of Mississippi — which includes dozens of references to mob violence. Part of building the “New Mississippi,” a Judge Reeves demonstrates, is honoring a new history.

Stories of racial violence tap a deep well. Discussion of these atrocities, past and present, often provokes reflexive rationalization, borne of an impulse, as the battle-flag waving governor Ross Barnett once put it, to “Stand Up for Mississippi.” Attempts to confront the state’s record of racial violence dredge up fears and resentments that many would prefer to keep below the surface. In last week’s remarks, which are receiving well-deserved praise, Judge Reeves seized an opportunity to remind his home state that it has a choice and a challenge. The notion of a “New” Mississippi demands the realization that there was indeed an “Old,” and that we are suspended somewhere between the two. The 2011 killing of James Craig Anderson revealed how much we all remain trapped in a history that we often feel more than we know. But last week’s sentences — and those that are sure to follow — offer a chance not just to close a chapter but also to open a conversation. Judge Reeves’s “New Mississippi” is not a place where the past no longer speaks, but a place where all heed its lessons.

This article was first published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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