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At Sentencing, Mississippi Judge Delivers a History Lesson

To people who grew up hearing about the triumph of reason and tolerance over ignorance and hate in the American South, the murder of James Craig Anderson sounds like something out of a history book. 

Anderson, a 47-year-old black man who lived in Jackson, Miss., was brutally beaten and deliberately run over by a group of white teens who got their kicks driving a pickup truck around “Jafrica,” as they called Jackson, targeting black individuals who appeared intoxicated or weak. They shouted “White power” as they attacked Anderson late one night. Deryl Paul Dedmon, who was driving the pickup, later bragged to a friend, “I just runned that nigger over.” 

But it wasn’t the 1960s. It was 2011, and the attack was caught on video. In a Mississippi federal court on Feb. 10, Dedmon, now 22, Dylan Wade Butler, 23, and John Aaron Rice, 21, were sentenced to 50, seven, and 18½ years, respectively, for hate crimes and conspiracy. Dedmon was already serving life in prison for murdering Anderson. Four other defendants awaited federal sentencing at press time.

In a passionate, historically rich speech, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves — who is only the second black judge to be appointed to the federal bench in Mississippi history — offered the courtroom, the nation, and the world his perspective on the crime that caused Mississippi “to bleed again.”

“Like the marauders of ages past, these young folk conspired, planned, and coordinated a plan of attack on certain neighborhoods in the city of Jackson for the sole purpose of harassing, terrorizing, physically assaulting and causing bodily injury to black folk. They punched and kicked them about their bodies — their heads, their faces. They prowled. They came ready to hurt. They used dangerous weapons; they targeted the weak; they recruited and encouraged others to join in the coordinated chaos; and they boasted about their shameful activity. This was a 2011 version of the nigger hunts.”

 He continued: “In the Mississippi we have tried to bury, when there was a jury verdict for those who perpetrated crimes and committed lynchings in the name of White Power … that verdict typically said that the victim died at the hands of persons unknown. The legal and criminal justice system operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding what these defendants would call White Power. Today, though, the criminal justice system (state and federal) has proceeded methodically, patiently and deliberately seeking justice. Today we learned the identities of the persons unknown … they stand here publicly today.”

“Today,” the judge concluded in remarks that drew attention across the country, “we take another step away from Mississippi’s tortured past … we move farther away from the abyss. Indeed, Mississippi is a place and a state of mind. And those who think they know about her people and her past will also understand that her story has not been completely written. Mississippi has a present and a future. That present and future has promise. As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies — black and white, male and female, in this Mississippi they work together to advance the rule of law.”