Look inside the book | ☞ Buy it now!

Judge Carlton Reeves: Resurrecting the Nightmarish Specter of Lynchings in Mississippi

Late one summer night in 2011 in Jackson, Mississippi, James Craig Anderson, an African-American, was set upon in a parking lot by ten white teenagers, beaten and murdered. The gruesome killing was recorded by security cameras, and all ten teenagers, now adults, have pled guilty to various charges. In their pleas they told the court that this incident was one of many trips into Jackson, which they called “Jafrica,” to beat up black people.

Yesterday in Jackson, the first three of the defendants to be sentenced in federal court received prison terms ranging from 5 to 50 years.

The three — Deryl Dedmon, Dylan Butler and John Rice — were sentenced by Federal district court judge Carlton Reeves. In his remarks from the bench, Reeves gave a unflinching account of the state’s violent past: “Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi’s infatuation with lynchings.”

And he connected Anderson’s murder directly to that bloody history:

A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget. 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.

Reeves went on to contrast the state’s current criminal justice system with the past, when the system “operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding what these defendants would call WHITE POWER.”

Today we take another step away from Mississippi’s tortured past . . . we move farther away from the abyss. . . . 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. Having learned from Mississippi’s inglorious past, these officials know that in advancing the rule of law, the criminal justice system must operate without regard to race, creed or color. This is the strongest way Mississippi can reject those notions — those ideas which brought us here today.

He closed with hopes for the victim’s mother and the defendants:

These sentences will not bring back James Craig Anderson. . . . The Court knows that James Anderson’s mother, who is now 89 years old, lived through the horrors of the Old Mississippi, and the Court hopes that she and her family can find peace in knowing that with these sentences, in the New Mississippi, Justice is truly blind. Justice, however, will not be complete unless these defendants use the remainder of their lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi. And, finally, the Court wishes that the defendants also can find peace.

Reeves was appointed to the federal bench by Obama in 2010. He is the second African-American federal judge from Mississippi.

Below is his full statement, as prepared:

One of my former history professors, Dennis Mitchell, recently released a history book entitled, A New History of Mississippi. “Mississippi,” he says, “is a place and a state of mind. The name evokes strong reactions from those who live here and from those who do not, but who think they know something about its people and their past.” Because of its past, as described by Anthony Walton in his book, Mississippi: An American Journey, Mississippi “can be considered one of the most prominent scars on the map” of these United States. Walton goes on to explain that “there is something different about Mississippi; something almost unspeakably primal and vicious; something savage unleashed there that has yet to come to rest.” To prove his point, he notes that, “[o]f the 40 martyrs whose names are inscribed in the national Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL, 19 were killed in Mississippi.” “How was it,” Walton asks, “that half who died did so in one state?” — My Mississippi, Your Mississippi and Our Mississippi.

Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi’s infatuation with lynchings. Lynchings were prevalent, prominent and participatory. A lynching was a public ritual — even carnival-like — within many states in our great nation. While other States engaged in these atrocities, those in the deep south took a leadership role, especially that scar on the map of America — those 82 counties between the Tennessee line and the Gulf of Mexico and bordered by Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.

Vivid accounts of brutal and terrifying lynchings in Mississippi are chronicled in various sources: Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynching and Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, just to name two. But I note that today, the Equal Justice Initiative released Lynching in America: Confronting the Terror of of Racial Terror; apparently, it too is a must-read.

In Without Sanctuary, historian Leon Litwack writes that between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 4,742 Blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs.1 The impact this campaign of terror had on black families is impossible to explain so many years later. That number contrasts with the 1,401 prisoners who have been executed legally in the United States since 1976.2 In modern terms, that number represents more than those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom3 and more than twice the number of American casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom4 — the Afghanistan conflict. Turning to home, this number also represents 1,700 more than who were killed on 9/11.5 Those who died at the hands of mobs, Litwack notes, some were the victims of “legal” lynchings — having been accused of a crime, subjected to a “speedy” trial and even speedier execution. Some were victims of private white violence and some were merely the victims of “Nigger hunts” — murdered by a variety of means in isolated rural sections and dumped into rivers and creeks. “Back in those days,” according to black Mississippians describing the violence of the 1930’s, “to kill a Negro wasn’t nothing. It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake. The whites would say, ‘Niggers jest supposed to die, ain’t no damn good anyway — so jest go an’ kill ’em.’ . . . They had to have a license to kill anything but a Nigger. We was always in season.”6 Said one white Mississippian, “A white man ain’t a-going to be able to live in this country if we let niggers start getting biggity.”7 And, even when lynchings had decreased in and around Oxford, one white resident told a visitor of the reaffirming quality of lynchings: “It’s about time to have another [one],” he explained, “[w]hen the niggers get so that they are afraid of being lynched, it is time to put the fear in them.”8

How could hate, fear or whatever it was that transformed genteel, God-fearing, God-loving Mississippians into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers? I ask that same question about the events which bring us together on this day. Those crimes of the past as well as these have so damaged the psyche and reputation of this great State.

[

James Bevel: Why the Children Did Lead Us

A key organizer for King’s SCLC, James Bevel was one of the principal architects of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, which put hundreds of school kids in the streets in 1963. One way or another he was also involved in most all the major campaigns in the 1960s, including the Freedom Rides, usually recruiting volunteers and educating them in nonviolence, as he did in Jackson during the Rides.

In an interview for Eyes on the Prize, Bevel talked about how responsive the children of Birmingham were to the idea of nonviolent direct action, much more so than adults. James DeVinney was a writer, director and producer of the series. The full, unedited transcript of the interview has recently been posted at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.

James DeVinney: You talked about the indoctrination of adults. What was the adult thinking?  

James Bevel: In ’63 in Birmingham most adults felt that segregation was permanent. That it was just that way, a permanent system. People’s homes and churches had been bombed, people had been lynched and killed and there was no process by which you could gain redress to your grievances. The adults had a conditioning.

As organizers you had to get people who had not experienced all of that and who had confidence in themselves and in our system of law.

The young people in Birmingham were susceptible to the principle that the attitudes and opinions of white people did not constitute law. That that was simply tradition and custom and if we lived according to the New Testament and the Constitution, then we would forge a new law rather than having to live by the attitudes and opinions of the dominant people at that point.

DeVinney: Tell me a story about what it was like when you started to train all those children.

Bevel: I had come out of the Nashville movement and the Mississippi movement, where we had basically used young people all the time. And at first King didn’t want me to use young people in Birmingham, because I had 80 charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor against me in Jackson, Mississippi, for sending young people on the Freedom Ride.

James Bevel rode on the first bus of Freedom Riders into Jackson in 1961. He quickly bailed out after his arrest and began recruiting local high school students to join the Rides.

James Bevel rode on the first bus of Freedom Riders into Jackson in 1961. He quickly bailed out after his arrest and began recruiting local high school students to join the Rides.

At that point that was about only five to ten, twelve adults who would go on demonstrations each day. My position was, you can’t get the dialogue you need with so few people. Besides, most adults have bills to pay, house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills.

But the young people — they can think at the same level but are not, at this point, hooked with all those responsibilities. So a boy from high school, he get the same effect in terms of being in jail in terms of putting the pressure on the city as his father and yet he is not, there is no economic threat on the family because the father is still on the job.

So the high school students was like our choice.

We said to them you’re adults, but you’re still sort of living on your mamas and your daddies.  It is your responsibility, in that you don’t have to pay the bills, to confront the segregation question. We went around and started organizing say like the queens of the high schools, the basketball stars, the football stars, so you get the influence and power leaders involved. And then they in turn got all the other students involved. . . .

[

Jesse Harris, 1940-2015

Jesse Harris was one of the many Riders from Jackson, Mississippi, a newcomer to the movement who got his first education in nonviolence while locked up in Parchman with the likes of James Farmer, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette. Civil Rights would become his life for the next ten years. After the Rides, Jesse worked as an organizer all over Mississippi, from the cotton fields of the Delta to the mean streets of McComb, until 1971. It is a record of perseverance and endurance at a time when many in the movement left the state for other campaigns after a year or two.

April 3, 2007

April 3, 2007, Jackson, Mississippi

The following are excerpts from my interview with Harris in 2007.

On being recruited to join the Freedom Rides by James Bevel, a member of the Nashville student movement and a fellow Mississippian:

James Bevel came to the place where we hung out at — it was like a pool hall. He said, “Hey, we got this bus coming in. People are gonna be protesting at the Trailways bus station and they need local support.”

That’s where my education stated.

People had to be orientated in the philosophy of nonviolence. Because we were gang members, now. You might say that I was one of the leaders of the Georgetown Gang. When I went to jail, when they heard that I was in jail, the whole gang came in right after me.

When I got out of jail, everybody said, “Hey!”

And I said, “Well, you gotta go, too. You ain’t nothing until you go to jail. You Uncle Tom ’til you go to jail.”

On his time in Parchman:

I didn’t understand nonviolence. I learned all that when we was in Parchman with James Lawson and John Lewis and all of ’em. That’s the way we occupied our time. We was engaged in discussions. I was picking up not only the philosophy of nonviolence but the history. These people had been active back in the 1950s, in the 1940s. I learned so much.

Before they got there, I think somebody set forth — I think it was James Farmer — said, “Well this is what we’re gonna do. This is the agenda while we’re here. We’re gonna get up in the morning, make up our bed, say our prayer, and we’re gonna start our discussions at 9:00.”

I didn’t talk about nothing. I was listening. [Laughs.] I was loving it. Yeah, I was learning it.

My favorite was Bernard Lafayette, because he more like the hood type, in his conversation. What you call the street talk. He can relate that back to where I came from, to those of us who were from the Jackson area. We relate to him because he was funny and he was intellectual. Lawson and Farmer, they were talking like they giving a lecture at Harvard University or something, especially when Lawson was talking about the Bible.

On organizing in Mississippi:

In Laurel, I went down to the county clerk and said, “I’m here to encourage people to register to vote.”

She said, “OK, but don’t bring no more than two at a time. I can’t handle but two at a time ’cause I got other work.”

I said, “Oh, two at time? Okay.”

 I was there the next morning with about 150 people. [Laughs.]

She said, “By God, you son of a bitch.”

[

← Before After →