U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves

The stirring words of U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, read during the Feb. 10 sentencing of three men involved in the hate crime murder of James Craig Anderson, a 48-year-old Black man, in a Mississippi parking lot in 2011, is being hailed as a moral and emotionally moving tour de force.

The young men Deryl Paul Dedmon, 22, John Aaron Rice, 21, and Dyland Wade Butler, 23, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and to violating the Matthew Shepard and James Bryd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act in the killing of Anderson, whom they and other conspirators beat and ran over with a truck while yelling “White power.”

Reeves, who in 2010 became the second African American appointed as federal judge in Mississippi, began his protracted speech—which was posted on NPR’s website—by invoking the phantom of Mississippi’s savage past, including Black enslavement and its “infatuation” with the “carnival-like” public ritual of lynching.

“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,” Reeves said, comparing the state’s past and present.

“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,” he continued. “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.”

And, Reeves added, “What is so disturbing … so shocking … so numbing … is that these nigger hunts were perpetrated by our children.”

The judge re-emphasized the fact that Anderson’s death was a hate crime—motivated by the victim’s race, and shot down claims that one or more of the men were, somehow, not “criminals.”

“In the name of White Power, these young folk went to ‘Jafrica’ (the Black neighbourhood) to ‘f-ck with some niggers!’ — echoes of Mississippi’s past,” Reeves said, later adding, “What these defendants did was ugly … it was painful … it is sad … and it is indeed criminal.”

Reeves ended by pointing to signs of success and recommending actions that would keep Mississippi from going backward into the abyss of its ugly past.

“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,” he said.

“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,” Reeves added. “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.”