Jackson

Is Racial Violence Part of Mississippi’s Past or Present?

It depends whom you ask. Ten young locals have pleaded guilty to federal hate-crime charges in Jackson, but white leaders don’t want to talk about it.

Deryl Dedmon, one of ten young whites from Rankin County, Miss., is serving a life sentence for murder and commission of a hate crime, in the 2011 racially-motivated killing of James Anderson.
National Journal
Alexia Fernã¡Ndez Campbell
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Alexia Fernández Campbell
Feb. 3, 2015, 10:05 p.m.

Try­ing to get white res­id­ents in sub­urb­an Jack­son, Miss., to dis­cuss the grue­some hate crime that ended the life of a black auto­work­er is not easy. Last month, two young adults from Rankin County pleaded guilty to fed­er­al hate-crime charges for at­tack­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans in Jack­son when they were teen­agers, part of a spree they called “n—- bash­ing.” Their pleas ended the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s first pro­sec­u­tion in the state un­der the 2009 Shep­ard-Byrd Hate Crimes Pre­ven­tion Act. John Blalack and Robert Rice are the last of 10 de­fend­ants who ad­mit­ted to the at­tacks, the kind of ra­cial crime that has plagued Mis­sis­sippi for dec­ades. Deryl Ded­mon, the ringlead­er, is serving a life sen­tence for run­ning over James An­der­son with a truck after the group robbed him.

Lead­ers of the mostly-white com­munity where the teens live have been tight-lipped about the is­sue of ra­cism in their back­yards. All five mem­bers of the county’s board of su­per­visors de­clined to talk to Na­tion­al Journ­al about it, and city of­fi­cials from the county seat of Brandon either de­clined to talk or did not re­spond to re­quests for an in­ter­view. The last four de­fend­ants who pleaded guilty to the hate-crime charges also de­clined to speak or did not re­spond to in­ter­view re­quests through their at­tor­neys.

One man did agree to talk: Perry Sander­ford, who has lived in Rankin County for more than 30 years and is founder of Cross­roads Coun­sel­ing Cen­ter, a Chris­ti­an fam­ily-coun­sel­ing cen­ter af­fil­i­ated with the Rankin County Baptist As­so­ci­ation. He’s white. Sander­ford talked with Na­tion­al Journ­al about how An­der­son’s murder has af­fected the com­munity and what it says about race re­la­tions in Jack­son.

What was your re­ac­tion when you found out that the murder of James An­der­son was ra­cially mo­tiv­ated?

It’s sad. Any time life is lost due to a crim­in­al ele­ment, it’s sad. But it’s not in­dic­at­ive of our cul­ture. At any mo­ment, minor ele­ments of any cul­ture or en­vir­on­ment can show it­self. That doesn’t rep­res­ent the real­ity of the cul­ture.

What are race re­la­tions like in Rankin County?

We’ve come a long way. If you’ll re­mem­ber, in the civil-rights era we were hav­ing dif­fi­culties mak­ing ad­just­ments. But this here was an isol­ated event. What I think happened was a small group were mo­tiv­ated by the least emo­tion­ally ma­ture ele­ment and there was no ac­count­ab­il­ity, no one to chal­lenge them. These were teen­agers and ap­par­ently quite isol­ated. But it doesn’t rep­res­ent the cul­ture of race re­la­tions in Rankin County.

Rankin County is home to two branches of the KKK. What does this say about ra­cism in your com­munity?

I’ve lived here 40 years; that ele­ment does not show it­self. I’ve nev­er seen them, I do not hear about it. We work to­geth­er very well among all races in Rankin County. And that’s a real­ity. The sad thing is that the old wounds of the past were triggered by a very isol­ated event and it has the po­ten­tial to col­or this as the present real­ity. It’s just not true. It’s the past real­ity. To this fam­ily, this is death and this is hard — and to the fam­ily of the ad­oles­cents that ac­ted this out, it is also a sad day.

I’ve had a really hard time get­ting loc­al lead­ers to talk about this. Is race a ta­boo sub­ject?

A hes­it­ancy to talk about it does not mean there is a prob­lem. The hes­it­ancy is be­cause we’ve got­ten to a place of re­spect where we do not want to of­fend, so we tend to not fo­cus on the neg­at­ive.

So do you think ra­cial vi­ol­ence should or shouldn’t be dis­cussed?

I think it can be dis­cussed in a for­um where there is open dia­logue and un­der­stand­ing. It’s a sad, dif­fi­cult sub­ject, and it’s like an old wound. Many people don’t want to go back to that trauma. There has been lots of heal­ing and great re­la­tion­ships over the years. Of course there’s a small ele­ment that sur­faces every now and then, but like I said, that doesn’t rep­res­ent us.

You have a lot of ex­per­i­ence as a Chris­ti­an fam­ily coun­selor. How do you think teens de­vel­op this sort of hatred?

I think a small group that’s isol­ated has the po­ten­tial to re­gress to the low­est emo­tion­ally ma­ture level, and that’s what happened. There’s a seed that’s been here since the be­gin­ning. Cain slew his broth­er — it’s not new. We live in a cul­ture of death; it’s trained through videos and news. These young people grow up on the me­dia. Vi­ol­ence is a part of the cul­ture. It’s just a hor­rif­ic tragedy, but also I think it was just vi­ol­ence, rage.

How does the com­munity move for­ward from here?

I think con­tin­ued open dia­logue for great­er un­der­stand­ing and an ap­pre­ci­ation of di­versity. I be­lieve it’s hap­pen­ing. Mis­sis­sippi ranks num­ber two as the state where people make the most char­it­able con­tri­bu­tions for the bet­ter­ment of oth­ers. But we do have a his­tory. We have, like, PTSD — I think the na­tion harks back to the pain of the past that may have been tar­geted in the South, and a lot of that has healed and moved on. But the na­tion trig­gers that past about the South, and there is a lot more than that go­ing on.

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