Where in the world do at least seven people participate in a brutal and fatal sectarian attack against an innocent working man whose only crime is to be part of a targeted minority? And where in the world would only one of those people then be charged with murder, and only one other charged with "simple assault," despite ample evidence that those involved set out to commit extreme violence that evening?
Syria? Libya? The Democratic Republic of Congo?
Welcome to 21st century Mississippi.
According to police, early on the morning of June 26th, James Craig Anderson, a 49 year-old African-American auto plant worker in the city of Jackson, Mississippi, was set upon by a group of white teenagers who beat him while screaming "White Power." Then one of them got behind the wheel of a Ford F250 green pickup and ran Anderson over, killing him.
The teenagers, seven in all, are alleged to have been led by 18 year-old Deryl Dedmon, and, according to police, they had left an all-night party in the neighboring upper-class white enclave of Rankin County with the sole intention of finding an African-American to attack.
The horrifying security camera footage of the murder -- showing Anderson repeatedly attacked by multiple teens before being run down - is matched only by the blithe disregard of the alleged killers themselves. After the attack, police say that Dedmon drove along with his two female passengers to a McDonald's to meet with the rest the group and, according to witnesses, bragged "I ran that nigger over."
Far from being the quiet loner type, it seems there were plenty of signs that Dedmon was a menace.
Brian Richardson, the white pastor at Rankin County's Castlewoods Baptist Church, told reporters after the Anderson slaying that he had told police and school officials that his own son had been the victim of violent bullying by Dedmon for a period of two years, and that Dedmon and his friends frequently targeted people in the community with homophobic and racial slurs.
Most chillingly, Richardson said that he told police that it was "painfully clear that [Dedmon] was going to injure someone severely or possibly kill someone." Richardson also added that if Dedmon was not taken off the streets "it's going to happen again."
The "taken off the streets" part is important because, almost unbelievably, after being freed on a $50,000 dollar bond, Dedmon is now subject to house arrest under an $800,000 bond. In other words, he is not yet in prison despite being accused of taking part in a grotesque and premeditated racial assault that Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith has called a hate crime.
Judge William Barnett, the Mississippi magistrate who decided that Dedmon, despite Brian Richardson's prescient previous warnings, posed no danger if sent back home from prison, also saw fit to reduce the charges against John Aaron Rice, also 18, the only other person charged in the case, from murder to simple assault. Rice is now free on $5,000 bond.
How can this be? How can more than half a dozen teenagers take part in such a fatal racist attack in a region and a nation with a history of racial violence and most of them just be allowed to walk away from it?
For some time now, there has been a dangerous historical amnesia developing in the United States, and nowhere has this appeared to be more concentrated than in the South, where I make my home. In Mississippi, it's a historical revisionism that starts at the top.
Mississippi's current governor, former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, opined as recently as last year that the omission of any mention of slavery from a proclamation on Confederate History Month by Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell was "just a nit...not significant." and, in a memorable turn of phrase, didn't "matter for diddly."
Later that same year, when interviewed by the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, Barbour said that, during his youth, the segregationist White Citizens' Council in his native Yazoo City "was an organization of town leaders" that in his view kept the peace.
[Barbour's statement now seem particularly ill-advised as, on June 12, 1963, civil rights activist and U.S. army veteran Medgar Evers was gunned down in Jackson, Mississippi - the same town where James Craig Anderson was beaten to death - by White Citizens' Council member Byron De La Beckwith. Beckwith was tried three times before finally being convicted for Evers' murder in 1994. He would later die in prison. Evers himself is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.]
In November of last year, a "secession ball" in the South Carolina city of Charleston celebrated that state's exit from the union 150 years ago - an exit that heralded the beginning of a civl war in which over 600,000 Americans lost their lives - and was mirrored by similar events in Montgomery, Alabama and elsewhere.
In perhaps a more famous incident from April 2009, Texas governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, speaking to a rally of Tea Party supporters in Austin, said
that Texas had entered the United States with the understanding that "we would be able to leave if we decided to do that." Perry forgot, perhaps that, against the advice of its wise founding father, Sam Houston, Texas did leave the Union to join the Confederacy in 1861. Everyone saw how well that worked out.
The South is not alone in this historical revisionism. Minnesota Congresswoman and Republican Senatorial candidate Michele Bachmann recently signed a pledge from an Iowa-based group called The Family Value which proclaimed that "a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President."
All of which is perhaps a roundabout way of saying this: If in this context and all these years later James Craig Anderson's murder counts for so little that his alleged killers -- at least one of whom has been accused of presenting a credible and ongoing threat to the community -- are allowed to savour their freedom even as Anderson's family mourns his loss, then justice in Mississippi doesn't count for much more now than it did in Medgar Evers' time, and the grotesque romanticizing of an era of racial hatred and enslavement still has far deeper roots among some in our country than we are willing to admit.
In some ways, Mississippi remains the most misunderstood of American states. It has proven to be one of the great producers and repositories of American culture, producing writers such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright and Eudora Welty (who spent most of her life in the country where the Anderson killing took place), and musicians of the caliber of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Elvis Presley. Indeed, much of what the rest of the world understands as American creativity can be traced back to the delta and hill country of the state.
I write these lines in New Orleans, a city which was at least partially built on slavery and where, in July 1864, a mob opposed to giving African-Americans the vote, aided by New Orleans police, attacked a political meeting in a riot that killed at least 37 people, all but three of them black.
Almost exactly one hundred years later - following the murder of of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by members of the Ku Klux Klan - the folk singer Phil Ochs (frequently lambasted as a northern interloper though he was in fact born in Texas) wrote one of his best songs, "Here's to the State of Mississippi." In it, Ochs sang that, in Mississippi, "the calender is lying when it reads the present time."
That may or may not still hold true. The course of the trial of those accused of murdering James Craig Anderson will tell us a great deal, though, about how much work we still have to do.
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