Opinion: Lynching, murder and the judge

Two important events in the unfinished history of Southern racial violence occurred earlier this month. On Feb. 10, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative released “Lynching in America,” an unflinching report that documents 3,959 black victims of mob violence in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. The same day, a U.S. 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 3 1/2 years ago, young whites from Brandon, Miss., drove into nearby Jackson looking for a black man to assault. They chose James Craig Anderson, a 48-year-old black auto worker. A motel security camera captured the attack. As the beaten and bloodied victim staggered away, 18-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 beside two accomplices as Judge Reeves declared that the three men (who he sentenced to 7 to 50 years) — 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 the 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. The judge invoked the three by name, along with other well-known martyrs, and just a sampling of the hundreds of black victims whose names few would recognize today.

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 how suburban Brandon, relatively prosperous and disproportionately white by Mississippi standards, became an incubator for a latter-day lynch mob. Meanwhile, increasingly tight-lipped town officials dismissed the attack as an isolated incident, and defensive locals fired back that “there is nothing wrong with Brandon.”

Indeed, from a historical perspective, Brandon is decidedly normal — just another “lynch town” that would rather not face that part of its past or ponder its echoes in the present.

By placing Anderson’s killing in a longer history of racial terror, Judge Reeves tore through the veil separating past and present. It is a barrier that the powerful and privileged in Mississippi worked long and hard to build. Just a generation ago, in a U.S. 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,” as Judge Reeves demonstrates, is honoring a new history.

Stories of racial violence tap a deep well. Discussion of these atrocities often provokes reflexive rationalization, born of an impulse, as the battle-flag waving Gov. 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 admission 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. The Feb. 10 sentences — and those that are likely to follow — offer a chance not just to close a chapter but 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.

Jason Morgan Ward is associate professor of History at Mississippi State University. He is the author of “Hanging Bridge: A Lynching Site and a Civil Rights Century.”

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