James Craig Anderson sang tenor in the choir at the First Hyde Park Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. He’d worked at a car plant near Jackson for seven years, and he enjoyed gardening in his free time. Anderson’s partner of 17 years, a man named James Bradfield, was the legal guardian of a 4 year-old child, and Anderson and Bradfield were raising the child together. This child will not grow up in Anderson’s care, however, because Anderson was killed by a mob of white teenagers.
The murder of Mr. Anderson recalls Jim Crow era lynchings. On a Sunday morning shortly before dawn, a group of teenagers were drinking in the nearby town of Puckett. According to police, one of them told his friends they should leave and “go fuck with some niggers.” Two carloads of the boys then drove to Jackson, where they found Anderson in a parking lot, beat him, and then drove their pickup truck over him. During the beating, some of the teens reportedly yelled out the words “white power.”
Yet, while Anderson’s death may resemble Klan violence from another era, it is hardly a memory from a distant past. James Craig Anderson died in 2011. Three of his killers were sentenced Tuesday by a federal judge.
Judge Carlton Reeves delivered fairly substantial remarks at the sentencing hearing. His full remarks are worth reading in their entirety. In them, he laments the “toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred” that “caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget,” and he lays out the brutal history of racial violence that still defines Mississippi in many people’s minds. Quoting one author’s description of the state, Judge Reeves says that “there is something different about Mississippi; something almost unspeakably primal and vicious; something savage unleashed there that has yet to come to rest.”
This history, according to Reeves, stands in tension with what the judge labels the “New Mississippi.” This is the Mississippi that has struggled to lift the state “from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in.” And the murder of James Craig Anderson “ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi . . . causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again.”
Again, the entirety of Reeves’ speech should be read in full, but one passage of his remarks stands out. Judge Reeves is not blind to the progress of the last half-century. To the contrary, he sees it in his courtroom:
The sadness of this day also has an element of irony to it: each defendant was escorted into court by agents of an African-American United States Marshal; having been prosecuted by a team of lawyers which includes an African-American AUSA from an office headed by an African-American U.S. Attorney — all under the direction of an African-American Attorney General, for sentencing before a judge who is African-American, whose final act will be to turn over the care and custody of these individuals to the BOP — an agency headed by an African-American.
The movie “Selma” captures the way things used to work in much of the South. Four little girls were killed in the church that was supposed to be their sanctuary. A man was murdered in front of his mother and grandfather by the very police who were supposed to protect him. As the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes, the film captures “what it means to live in constant fear of death or violence for which there will be no justice.”
On Tuesday, Anderson’s family found justice. But Anderson remains dead. Mr. Bradfield, a man who cannot even call himself a widower due to another form of unconstitutional injustice, said in a statement to the court that his adopted son sleeps in his bed because “he doesn’t want those people to get me.” The United States of America has a black president. That president appointed a black judge, a black attorney general, and a black prosecutor. And none of these men have the power to restore what a small band of drunk teenagers took away from Anderson and his family.
Almost two years to the day after racism killed James Craig Anderson, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Shelby County v. Holder. “Things have changed in the South,” Chief Justice John Roberts explained in his opinion for the Court. “Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.” On these points, the Chief Justice is correct. The South is different than it was in 1965. Racial minorities do enjoy high offices, including the office of President of the United States.
But it only took a few boys from a tiny town in the poorest state in the nation to re-create the age of Jim Crow lynchings.
This is what Chief Justice Roberts missed in his opinion scrapping a key provision of the Voting Rights Act on the theory that it did not reflect “current needs.” He missed the fact that racism can be an intensely individualistic crime against reason. A police force can be committed to equality, and a single cop can still fire impulsively on a black suspect. A nation can be committed to universal suffrage, and yet a single state legislature can erect obstacles to the right to vote. Lynchings are now infrequent in the South, but that does not make Anderson’s death any less tragic. And it certainly does not justify eliminating laws banning racially-motivated killings.
We are fortunate to live in a nation where most people do not commit serious violations of the law. Most employers do not act with racist intent. Most cops do not fire their guns unnecessarily. Most teenagers do not follow up a night of drinking with violence. Judge Reeves’ “New Mississippi” is slowly but consistently displacing the old one.
But that does not mean that we should make Roberts’ mistake of blurring the line between less racism and no racism. Anderson did not die due to a racist regime of state-sponsored apartheid, he died because of a small band of hateful Americans. And that was enough to leave his adopted son without one of his fathers.