Black Mississippi Judge Throws The Book At White Supremacists In This Powerful Courtroom Speech

In an epic pre-sentencing speech, a black Mississippi federal judge made it clear to the three white murderers in his courtroom that America is getting sick and tired of the hateful “white power” bullsh*t.

In 2011, Deryl Dedmon, Jr., John Aaron Rice, and Dylan Wade Butler traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to harass some “n****rs.” They came upon 49-year-old African-American James Craig Anderson and proceeded to attack him. They beat him, hurled racial epithets, and made him suffer until they ran him over with their truck, killing him.

Just before sentencing the trio, US District Judge Carlton Reeves told them to sit down because he had something to say to them and he wanted them to listen. And then he read a lengthy statement that every American should take the time to absorb in his or her own mind.

To begin, Judge Reeves reminded the court of the tragic history that has plagued Mississippi and the Deep South for well over a century.

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.

Reeves then noted that an estimated 4,742 African-Americans were lynched between 1882-1968 and that the death toll as a result of this terrorism is greater than many of the modern day travesties that have befallen the American people.

That number contrasts with the 1,401 prisoners who have been executed legally in the United States since 1976. In modern terms, that number represents more than those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and more than twice the number of American casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom — the Afghanistan conflict. Turning to home, this number also represents 1,700 more than who were killed on Sept. 11.

Reeves said that by committing their hate crime, the three killers who sat in front of him had basically lynched Anderson four years ago and had re-opened a wound in Mississippi that had been healing for decades.

How could hate, fear or whatever it was transform 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.

Mississippi soil has been stained with the blood of folk whose names have become synonymous with the civil rights movement like Emmett Till, Willie McGee, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Vernon Dahmer, George W. Lee, Medgar Evers and Mack Charles Parker. But the blood of the lesser-known people like Luther Holbert and his wife, Elmo Curl, Lloyd Clay, John Hartfield, Nelse Patton, Lamar Smith, Clinton Melton, Ben Chester White, Wharlest Jackson and countless others, saturates these 48,434 square miles of Mississippi soil. On June 26, 2011, four days short of his 49th birthday, the blood of James Anderson was added to Mississippi’s soil.

The common denominator of the deaths of these individuals was not their race. It was not that they all were engaged in freedom fighting. It was not that they had been engaged in criminal activity, trumped up or otherwise. No, the common denominator was that the last thing that each of these individuals saw was the inhumanity of racism. The last thing that each felt was the audacity and agony of hate, senseless hate: crippling, maiming them and finally taking away their lives.

Mississippi has a tortured past, and it has struggled mightily to reinvent itself and become a New Mississippi. New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in. Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today: Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice. They and their co-conspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi … causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again.

Reeves goes on to talk about hate and ponders why these three men decided to do what they did when they could have carved out a good future for themselves.

Hate comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and from this case, we know it comes in different sexes and ages. 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.

What is so disturbing … so shocking … so numbing … is that these nigger hunts were perpetrated by our children … students who live among us … educated in our public schools … in our private academies … students who played football lined up on the same side of scrimmage line with black teammates … average students and honor students. Kids who worked during school and in the summers; kids who now had full-time jobs and some of whom were even unemployed. Some were pursuing higher education and the Court believes they each had dreams to pursue. These children were from two-parent homes and some of whom were the children of divorced parents, and yes some even raised by a single parent. No doubt, they all had loving parents and loving families.

Towards the end of his remarks, Judge Reeves also took the time to talk about just how different the criminal justice system is today in Mississippi and the United States as a whole and how far it has come since the days of Jim Crow.

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. 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 [Federal Bureau of Prisons] — an agency headed by an African-American.

Today 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. 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.

This is the bulk of the full statement as published by NPR. After Reeves finished, he promptly sentenced all three defendants to serve prison time without the possibility of parole. They will have to serve out their full sentences behind bars for the pain and suffering they caused as a result of their hate and racism.

As for Judge Reeves, his statement will go down as one of the most powerful speeches in American history. He turned a horrific murder into an opportunity to remind the country of the violent, racist past that still reverberates today. And even as institutionalized racism continues to exist across the nation, Reeves demonstrated how change has occurred to make things better than they once were and how more change is possible if we want to make things even better than they are now. It’s just a matter of how we choose to move forward.

Featured Image courtesy of Raw Story.