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Pleas in Mississippi Case Show Some Progress – And That Much Work Remains Ahead of Us

I was in court with Barbara Anderson Young this week when three of the white teens who beat, ran over and killed her brother last June in a Mississippi parking lot pleaded guilty to murder and hate crimes. Those three now face life sentences in prison.

James Anderson
James C. Anderson was 49 when he was killed in Jackson, MS, June 29, 2011.

I hope that the pleas will provide at least some small measure of comfort to the family of James Craig Anderson, who was murdered only because he was black.

But what I’ll remember most from these proceedings, though they centered on a horrible crime, is the grace that Mr. Anderson’s oldest sister displayed when she addressed the court.

Mrs. Young thanked the Hinds County District Attorney and the Justice Department – as do we at the Southern Poverty Law Center – for their vigorous prosecution of this case. The teens are among the first defendants to be charged under the federal hate-crime statute signed by President Obama in 2009, and the first to be prosecuted in a fatal attack in the South.

Mrs. Young thanked us as well. Our wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the Anderson family will continue at the same time that authorities consider criminal charges against additional persons.

The case began in the early morning of June 26, 2011, when Deryl Dedmon Jr. and six other white teens drove to Jackson to, as one of them put it, “go f--k with some n----rs.” The teens attacked Mr. Anderson in a motel parking lot.

As Mr. Anderson was being beaten, one of the teens shouted “white power.” As Mr. Anderson staggered at the edge of the lot, Mr. Dedmon drove his Ford F-250 truck over a curb, struck Mr. Anderson and then ran over him. Mr. Dedmon told the others that he “ran that n----r over.”

Mrs. Young wants the full story told, and a civil trial against Mr. Dedmon and others may be the public’s only opportunity to hear a full accounting of what happened that morning. Her brother deserves nothing less.

All of us in court were witness to the Anderson family’s pain, as Mrs. Young talked about losing her brother – a man with a wonderful sense of humor and who loved to sing in his church choir – to such a hateful crime.

In spite of their loss, the Anderson family told prosecutors not to seek the death penalty for anyone in this case. There’s a lesson of compassion there for all of us.

Mrs. Young also reminded us all of the work still ahead. “We, the Anderson family, are praying for racial conciliation, not just in Mississippi but all over this land and country,” she told the court.

Indeed, hate crimes don’t happen only in Mississippi or other states in the Deep South. They’re occurring with alarming frequency all across the United States, including most recently, it appears, in Sanford, Fla.

That’s why we’ll continue to provide classroom teachers across the country with the tools they need to improve intergroup relations and reduce the prejudice that all too often ends in heartbreaking tragedies.

It’s work that we’ll do in the name of James Anderson and the countless other victims of racial intolerance.