James Bradfield worked the graveyard shift at a factory that built airplane parts in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a new job and he didn’t like the hours. He’d previously worked for a company that made radiators, but the company went out of business and Bradfield had to take the next job he could find. And so he was tired on the morning of June 26, 2011, when the detective arrived at his home and told him that Craig Anderson, his partner for 18 years, had died. He’d been hit by a truck, the detective said.
Bradfield felt his body go frozen, his mind go blank, his stomach drop. He thought about their 4-year-old son, De'Mariouz, and he realized that he did not know what to say to him. He called his mother and his pastor, Rev. Terry Davis, and they rushed over. The four of them sat down in the living room. Bradfield tried to hold back his tears. Davis turned to De'Mariouz, Bradfield recalled, and asked him if he remembered hearing about heaven at church. De'Mariouz nodded.
“That’s where Craig’s gone — to heaven,” Davis said.
“He gone to heaven? Why he gone to heaven?” De'Mariouz said.
“The Lord said he wanted him to go to heaven.”
“I’m gon’ miss him. Why he have to go like that? I didn’t get to say goodbye to him.”
De'Mariouz began crying. Bradfield couldn’t hold his tears back any longer, and they hugged and sobbed.
The next few days were a blur, and Bradfield said relatives later told him that during those days, he seemed in a trance, “zoned out,” as he made Anderson’s final arrangements. He went to the courthouse and met with District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, who explained to him how Anderson had died. The suspects had confessed. Witnesses had given statements. A security camera captured footage — “You don’t want to see it,” a detective told him.
Bradfield, 44 at the time, learned the horrible truth — this was no accident. The suspects were teenagers. They were white. They had attacked Anderson because he was black. They had taken pleasure in his suffering. The young man who killed him had celebrated his death. This was not simply a murder. This was a lynching.
Nearly 5,000 people, most of them black, were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, about 500 of them in Mississippi. More than simply murders, these were political killings, tacitly endorsed or ignored by authorities, designed to strike fear into those who might question white supremacy. The lynching of Craig Anderson echoed a brutal and violent form of racism that many locals had thought long gone. Yet here it was manifested in a group of teenagers born more than two decades after the civil rights era.
“What disturbed so many people was the ages of the kids,” said Charles Bolton, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has written extensively about 19th- and 20th-century Mississippi. “These kids had supposedly grown up in this integrated generation.”
Instead they had shown that sons and daughters had inherited the sins of their parents and grandparents. “The seeds were sown somewhere,” said Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has an office in Jackson, Mississippi. “You are raised to develop this. Where did these kids learn this? It’s not just an idea — it’s a culture.”
It’s a culture that bursts into public view with each instance of white supremacist violence: In the United States, white supremacist terrorists have caused more deaths (31) than jihadis have since 9/11 (26), according to the nonpartisan New America Foundation.
Over the four years following Anderson’s death, Bradfield would have to cope with the particular type of pain, confusion, and despair that had been common for black Americans for generations.
The murder of the man he loved had become a public symbol — of Mississippi’s ongoing struggle to wash away the blood staining its history, of the tensions that lingered between the sins of America’s past and the ideals it aimed to fulfill. To Bradfield, though, it was a private grief. “Nobody else could understand what I lost,” he said. “They took everything from me. That was everything.”
At the arraignment of Deryl Dedmon, the 18-year-old charged with murder, the judge set bail at $50,000, which meant Dedmon needed only $5,000 to walk out of jail. Anderson’s loved ones were shocked. Some of them gasped and shook their heads. Bradfield went into a rage. “This ain’t right!” he shouted. “This ain’t right!” And he kept shouting it over and over as the bailiffs pulled him out of the courtroom.
Bradfield remembered the stories his father and his grandmother told him about what Mississippi used to be like. His grandmother told him about the years of Jim Crow, the lynchings in the woods, and the burning crosses on lawns. His father told him about separate water fountains and schools, and about how a gang of whites beat and shot Mack Parker before throwing him in the Pearl River for allegedly raping a white woman who was likely attempting to cover up an affair with someone else.
Those days felt distant by the time Bradfield was a teenager. He was friendly with his white classmates. He dated a white girl for a few months. He had white neighbors and saw white people at all the places he hung out around town — the roller-skating rink, the movie theater, the football games. With each year, he saw fewer and fewer of them, though. Jackson’s white residents were fleeing for the suburbs. In the early 1980s, white people made up more than half of Jackson’s population. By the mid-'90s, the city was nearly 70% black.
He lived with his grandmother in north Jackson then. Every few weeks, he drove out to Madison County to visit some family, and on one of those visits, his cousin told him she knew somebody she wanted him to meet. She gave him Craig Anderson’s phone number, Bradfield called the next morning, and the two met that afternoon. For their first date they drove 45 minutes into Louisiana to buy lottery tickets and then drove 45 minutes back, with nothing but conversation to occupy themselves. They fell for each other that day, and soon they were together every weekend.
They made a good pair. Anderson’s warm demeanor loosened up Bradfield, whose cautious temperament and organized mind kept Anderson in check. They took care of each other. When Bradfield played his regular card games, Anderson fixed him a plate. When Anderson hit the pool halls, Bradfield served him drinks. Anderson cooked Bradfield hearty, delicious meals. Bradfield surprised Anderson with trips out of town, to Chicago, New Orleans, Miami. In those cities, they held hands and kissed in public, which they never felt comfortable doing in Jackson.
After three years of dating, Anderson moved in with Bradfield. Two years later, they bought a house. They joined a local church and sang in the choir. It was Bradfield’s idea to adopt De'Mariouz, and at first Anderson was hesitant because he wasn’t sure they’d be able to handle a newborn. But from the minute De'Mariouz came home with them, “he jumped right into being Mr. Mom,” Bradfield said. He changed the diapers, bought the clothes, installed the car seat, set up the bassinet, and bought more toys than Bradfield thought their son needed. “He spoiled the baby,” Bradfield said.
When De'Mariouz was older and asked if his parents could buy him a candy bar or a stuffed animal, it was Anderson who indulged him while Bradfield played bad cop. Anderson went overboard on Christmas, putting up the lights and ornaments and persuading Bradfield that they should get De'Mariouz something big and nice and expensive, like a baby grand piano.
By then the men both knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. Mississippi did not recognize same-sex marriage, but Anderson and Bradfield planned their own private ceremony. They drove to New Orleans and during dinner at a restaurant in a hotel on Canal Street, they spoke their vows and exchanged rings. A few months later, Anderson got hired for a job as a production technician at a Nissan plant. The job paid much more than his previous one and he didn’t think he’d get it. “He was jumping around, smiling like it was the best day of his life,” Bradfield said. They celebrated with a trip to Memphis.
“Those were the years when we were like, This is it. We gon’ like our life. We both got good jobs. We were living real comfortable. We had everything we wanted,” Bradfield said. “We had the home. We had the child. We go to church, we go to work, we pay our taxes. Go to work and come home to your family — that’s all you can ask for.”
The couple planned to celebrate Anderson’s 48th birthday, on June 30, 2011, with a trip to Chicago. On his way to work on the evening of June 25, Bradfield called to remind Anderson that he should start packing soon. Then he said "I love you" and headed into the factory. It was the last time they spoke.
The night Craig Anderson was killed, a group of teenagers gathered for a birthday party on a farm in the suburbs of Jackson. Soon their names would become infamous, but for now they were merely high school students getting drunk around a bonfire on a warm summer night: Deryl Dedmon, John Aaron Rice, Dylan Butler, Kirk Montgomery, Shelbie Richards, Sarah Graves, John Blalack, Jonathan Gaskamp, Robert Rice, Joseph Dominick.
Late in the night, Dedmon suggested they go into Jackson to “fuck up a nigger,” Blalack told police. Blalack said that Dedmon seemed “bloodthirsty.” Dedmon told his friends that a group of black people had stolen his wallet in Jackson the night before, Montgomery told police. “Deryl was upset that he had got robbed in Jackson and he was having girl trouble also,” Montgomery said. Richards and Graves tried to persuade others to join. Blalack collected empty beer bottles.
They had done this before. At least four times over the previous three months, the teens had terrorized black people in Jackson, a mostly black city they called “Jafrica,” according to court documents.
The first time, Dedmon, Blalack, Robert Rice, John Aaron Rice, Gaskamp, and Montgomery threw beer bottles at black pedestrians, then beat up a drunken black man outside a golf course. The second time, Dedmon, Montgomery, Blalack, Robert Rice, and John Aaron Rice accelerated their Jeep toward a black pedestrian crossing the street, then swerved out of the way at the last moment.
The third time, Dedmon, Graves, Richards, Robert Rice, John Aaron Rice, and Montgomery drove into a residential area, rolled down the window, and told a man standing on the corner that they wanted to buy drugs. When the man approached, Blalack punched him in the face and they sped off.
The fourth time, Dedmon, Blalack, Dominick, Butler, and Montgomery threw beer bottles at black people they passed on the street. They hit at least one person, who fell to the ground. They then stopped at a sporting goods store, where Blalack bought a slingshot, which they used to shoot metal ball bearings at black people they drove past.
On the night of the birthday party, seven of them headed into Jackson. Montgomery drove Butler, John Aaron Rice, and Blalack in his white Jeep. Graves and Richards rode in Dedmon’s green pickup truck. It was a 15-minute drive into Jackson and Montgomery’s group arrived first, just past 4:30 a.m.
They threw bottles at homeless black people they passed, then pulled into the parking lot of a motel just off the highway, where they saw Craig Anderson standing beside an orange Chevy Avalanche. Montgomery told Dedmon to meet them there. Rice and Blalack got out of the car and approached Anderson, and Anderson said that he had locked his keys inside his truck. He asked if they had a coat hanger to open the truck. The teens told police that Anderson appeared drunk and that they continued the conversation to stall him until Dedmon arrived. His truck pulled up a few minutes later. Dedmon stepped out and shouted, “Nigger, get away from my truck!”
Rice threw the first punch. Anderson fell to the ground. Dedmon jumped on top of him and punched him in the head repeatedly. “I did hear Deryl call him a stupid nigger and he was cussing him while he was hitting him,” Butler told police. The barrage lasted about a minute or two. When it was over, Dedmon took Anderson’s wallet, Blalack and Montgomery told police. Then Rice and Dedmon headed back to their vehicles. Dedmon raised a fist and shouted, “White power!” and somebody in the Jeep responded, "White power!” Montgomery’s Jeep drove off.
When he got back into his truck, Dedmon said, “Stupid nigger,” according to Graves, and then, just as Dedmon was about to turn onto the road, he stopped. In his headlight beams, Dedmon saw Anderson stumbling to his feet at the edge of the parking lot. Dedmon backed up and angled his truck at Anderson. Then he hit the gas, jumped the curb, and ran him over. As the green truck took off down the road, two witnesses at the motel heard the woman in the passenger's seat, Richards, shout “Fucking nigger!” out the window.
Montgomery said Dedmon called and told him, “I ran that nigger over.” The two groups reconvened at a McDonald’s around the corner. Dedmon “had this big smirk on his face,” Montgomery said. Dedmon walked around to the front of his truck. He was “looking at it, laughing,” Butler said.
At least three witnesses had seen the truck hit Anderson. They described the vehicle to police and ran to the victim. One witness, Charlotte Shaw, saw the white Jeep and the green pickup drive past the parking lot on the way back to the highway. Shaw told police, “They were pointing and laughing.”
Details of the murder slowly trickled out to the public. Police officers testified, lawyers held press conferences, local news outlets spoke to witnesses, a judge raised Dedmon’s bail to $800,000, and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division opened an investigation. Then, on Aug. 8, CNN broadcast the security camera footage showing the beating and the murder, and the story made national headlines. Outrage spread across the country.
“People were shocked,” said Winston Thompson III, the lawyer who represented Anderson’s family. “We’ve always had racial issues in Mississippi, but prior to this happening, I never would have thought it would have been that systematic, that pervasive, that virulent: This is what they did for fun.”
It might not have been so shocking decades before, in the years before white people fled Jackson by the thousands, when white supremacy held the force of law. From 1877 to 1950, 22 people were lynched in Jackson’s Hinds County, more than anywhere else in the state, according to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative.
In June 1963, a white supremacist shot and killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers in front of his Jackson home. In 1967, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Jackson and two months later bombed the home of its rabbi, who had been a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement. Racist aggression was a constant in those years, and locals recalled white people driving past Jackson State University, a historically black school, shouting slurs at students.
Anderson’s murder revealed that the racist violence from those years had not completely vanished in the decades since. Yet the community refused to be terrorized. In mid-August, around 500 people marched through the city and gathered for a vigil in the parking lot where Anderson died. “We are here to unify,” one leader declared.
Later that month, activists from Atlanta organized a rally at the crime scene: “Maybe it sounds crazy, but we want to forgive what he did,” one of the them said to the crowd. In September, Anderson’s sister, Barbara Anderson Young, sent District Attorney Smith a letter on behalf of her family asking that he not seek the death penalty for Dedmon: “We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the south primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing [Anderson’s] killers will not help balance the scales.”
James Bradfield did not take part in the letter. He did not attend the vigil or the rally. He did not support the tone of racial reconciliation. He stayed away from the news. He only wanted to escape it all.
Bradfield spent his days in bed crying. He kept the lights off and the shades down. He stopped going to work and he stopped going to church. He rarely left the house and some days didn’t leave his bedroom. “I guess I took myself from society,” he said. His son went to live with Bradfield’s mother. She came over to make Bradfield sandwiches, but he had no appetite — he’d lose more than 50 pounds in those first several months after Anderson’s death.
The story was everywhere, it seemed. News stations played the footage over and over, he’d heard, and he feared accidentally switching onto a channel that was showing it. He didn’t want to see it. Still, he often thought about Anderson’s death. He wondered what Anderson had thought about in his final moments and how much pain he had felt. He lost his faith in God because God had allowed Anderson to be alone that night. “I kept asking myself why he had to be by himself,” he said. “I should have been there. I always had protected him. That was my job.”
Now Bradfield worried about protecting himself. “I was scared,” he said. “I thought some of those other guys would come and get me.” He bought a gun, got a license to carry, and learned to shoot. Some nights he would stare into space and shake with fear. Even De'Mariouz could sense it. One night, when the boy was at Bradfield’s house, he said, “Daddy, I’ma protect you. They not gonna get you.”
It seemed to Bradfield that De'Mariouz was coping better than he was. He didn’t cry as often as Bradfield did. He didn’t ask anymore questions about Anderson’s death. He barely even mentioned Anderson at all. But Bradfield thought about the big dreams Anderson had had for De'Mariouz, and he agonized over whether those dreams were still possible. Anderson had hoped De'Mariouz would one day go to Ole Miss, and he was adamant that they send him to private school, and at the end of first grade De'Mariouz had impressed his parents with all A's and B's on his report card.
With Anderson gone, though, Bradfield couldn’t afford the tuition on his own. Before the start of De'Mariouz’s second-grade school year, he transferred him from his private school to public school. A few months into the school year, De'Mariouz’s report card showed D's and F's. “I felt like I let Craig down,” Bradfield said.
Every day brought fresh reminders about the life with Anderson he had lost — a life they had planned to spend in the house they bought together a decade earlier. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a big backyard, and a breakfast nook and sat on a small hill draped with 40-foot-tall trees.
When they first saw it, Bradfield told Anderson that he thought it was ugly. “But Craig saw something in it,” he said, and over the months and years, Anderson fixed it up. Put in a new floor, redid the kitchen, painted the walls, planted a garden, built a garage and a screen-room patio. Anderson picked out all the furniture and decorated the whole place himself. The green carpet, the gold lamp in the living room, the painting of tigers, the mahogany clock, the chairs on the patio — they all got Bradfield thinking about Anderson now, and every day Bradfield felt a thick knot in his stomach and his cheeks swollen from crying. The days blended into each other, “like in a nightmare,” Bradfield said. “It felt like it wasn’t real and I was just going through the motions.”
One afternoon, Bradfield was driving De'Mariouz to Bradfield’s mother’s house, when De'Mariouz suddenly said, “You can’t go that way. That’s where Dedmon killed Craig.” And Bradfield, startled, looked around and there, indeed, was the motel parking lot.
“How you know that?” he asked his son.
“I saw it on TV.”
Years later, Bradfield remembered the moment the reality of Anderson’s death hit him. He went to Walmart to buy a gift for De'Mariouz a few weeks before Christmas. “I just walked in and all I could do was cry,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t accept that I had to do it on my own.”
He watched the security footage of the murder shortly after that, seven or eight months after June 26. He thought it would help him accept the reality and move forward. He watched it once and never again. He still rarely left the house and still spent most of his days in bed crying.
The hardest days that first year were the days of the court hearings, he said. There were many hearings because authorities had built up many separate cases. The District Attorney’s office had a murder case against Dedmon and an assault case against John Aaron Rice. The Department of Justice charged all 10 teenagers with civil rights violations for the attacks on Anderson and the anonymous victims from their other four admitted trips into Jackson. Federal prosecutors split the 10 defendants across four cases, which meant a total of six cases to follow and attend. “We had to keep replaying the same incident over and over,” Bradfield said.
Before some hearings, prosecutors asked him if he was willing to speak on the witness stand. He declined each time. He didn’t think he could make it through without becoming overwhelmed by tears. And so he sat at the far end of the courtroom bench and watched. He looked at the white people on the benches across the aisle. Some of them were crying. Some of them shook their heads and wore sad, anguished expressions.
Bradfield tried his best to look away. “I hated to sit there and see the look on their faces,” he said. “Looking at the faces of their parents, the only thing that was going through my mind was 'All of y’all are damn racists.' There was so so much anger in me. They were acting like they wanna cry and I look at them like, 'What the hell you crying for?'”
Deryl Dedmon and most of the other defendants lived in Brandon, a suburb 15 miles east of Jackson. “A white-flight town,” history professor Bolton called it.
Brandon is around 80% white and signs around town boast of its school district’s “A+ rating.” The teenagers reflected the economic spectrum of the town and the surrounding suburbs: Dedmon lived in a big brick house on a cul-de-sac in a subdivision with grassy medians between the lanes; Butler’s mother lived in an apartment complex whose residents were predominantly black; Blalack and Dominick lived in a winding residential neighborhood with sloping two-car driveways; John Aaron Rice lived in a trailer that sat next door to a two-story house with a jungle gym in the yard on a narrow, rocky street; Graves lived a 30 minute-drive from town, in a wooden trailer tucked behind a thicket of trees up a slope from a secluded country road.
The defendants and their families declined interview requests for this story. John Aaron Rice told BuzzFeed News he would answer questions only in exchange for money. Kirk Montgomery and Joseph Dominick offered brief comments.
“I lost my freedom, family, and everything else for a crime I didn’t commit,” Montgomery said.
“Right now in society, we’re in the most volatile times with racism,” Dominick said. “But I’ve changed. It’s been a different experience in [prison]. Most of the black guys in here know what I’m in for but they still love me.”
In court, the teenagers and their supporters denied they were racists. Richards told the court she “followed a lot of people with hate in their hearts.” Graves said that she “was a teenager who partied too much and wanted to fit in with the crowd.”
In a letter to the court, her friend, who noted that she was engaged to a black man, wrote that Graves babysat “my mixed son for me many times and he always came back happy.” A family friend testifying for Blalack said that he “lacked a great deal of self-esteem” and “wanted to fit in.” John Aaron Rice said in court, “I wasn’t a racist. I wasn’t ever raised or taught any of that.” Butler, who had a black uncle and a black stepdad, said, “I was never raised to have a hatred for African-Americans.”
Most of them cited drunken judgment, youthful foolishness, and peer pressure as their explanations for joining the rides into Jackson. As a neighbor of one defendant explained, “Some kids acted like they were racist because it was the popular thing to do in some groups. Like they’d have black friends and they’d never say the n-word around them, but then when they’re with their white friends, it’s different.”
In police and court statements, the other teenagers pointed to Dedmon as the source of racist peer pressure. At a press conference organized by the Anderson family’s lawyer, a white local pastor recounted that he had warned Brandon Police about Dedmon after he bullied his son. The pastor’s son told news outlets that Dedmon’s crew picked fights with kids who had black friends and that when Barack Obama was elected president, Dedmon wrote on Facebook, “no niggers for president." A convenience store manager told a local paper that Dedmon and his friends once entered his store, saw a group of Jackson State fans, and said, “Wow, looks like niggers are taking over Brandon.” Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Jody Owens said that his office’s investigation into the case discovered that Dedmon had relatives who were members of white supremacist groups.
When Dedmon pleaded guilty to the state murder charges in March 2012, he said, “I was young. I was dumb. I was ignorant.” And then he echoed the same refrain as most of his fellow defendants: “I was not raised the way that I acted that night.” That refrain reflected an idea that resonated across Brandon: This was an isolated circle of racist aggression and did not emerge from a deeper culture of racism.
Shelbie Richards’s boyfriend, who identified himself only as Bradley, said that the media coverage of the murder ignited racial divides that did not previously exist in the area. “The news coverage was about trying to bring racism back,” he said. “This kind of stuff is what brings racism into the world. I don’t see the point in saying anything about race or involving race. It just makes blacks hate whites and whites hate blacks all the more.”
The racism present was not the public and proud strain common in America’s past. This was racism clouded by denial and shame. Sarah Graves’ mother, Mary Miles Harvey, wrote a letter to the court saying that she didn’t raise her daughter to be a racist. At Graves’ sentencing hearing, Judge Harvey Wingate called Harvey to the witness stand to ask her about the letter. He noted that Graves had told investigators that when her and her brother’s rooms were messy, Harvey would tell them they were “living like niggers.” Harvey denied saying that.
“I would have said Negroes, not niggers,” she said. “I just meant that their rooms were nasty, like a pigsty.”
Wingate asked her what she thought the word “nigger” meant.
“An ignorant, nasty person,” Harvey said. “I was taught in school that a nigger was a nasty person, and a Negro was a black person.”
After a year, Bradfield repainted the house, cut down five trees in the front yard, ripped out the carpet and polished the hardwood underneath, replaced the wallpaper, and sold all the furniture and bought a new set. After a year and a half, he went back to work and took De'Mariouz back in to live with him. After two years, he took off his wedding ring and placed it in the jewelry box in his bedroom.
He returned to the day-to-day routine he once had. He was not healed, but the responsibilities of work and child care taught him to bear the pain. Life had gone on over those months he’d spent crying in bed with the shades down and the lights off and there were mortgage, credit card, and car payments to make. The life he and Anderson had built with their dual incomes he now had to support with one. He could not. In 2014, he filed for bankruptcy.
The court appearances continued. By January 2015, all 10 defendants had pleaded guilty to the federal hate crime charges. In February, Judge Carlton Reeves was to hand down the sentence for three of them — Deryl Dedmon, who had already been sentenced to life in prison for his state conviction, John Aaron Rice, and Dylan Butler.
Bradfield did not want to get out of bed that morning and he clung tightly to his covers. Long after his alarm had sounded, he got up and showered. He brushed his teeth. He put on his nicest blue jeans, black leather loafers, and a white pinstripe dress shirt with silver cufflinks. Then he fell face first onto his bed and sobbed. “I just felt like I couldn’t go through it anymore,” he said. “I was just so tired.”
The prosecutors had asked Bradfield if he wanted to speak at this hearing and he told them he wouldn’t be able to. He gave them a written statement instead, and he silently watched Anderson’s sister, Barbara, step up to the witness stand. She had served as the face of Anderson’s family from the start. She had given speeches and signed her name to letters. She had been strong and poised through these four years, and when she addressed the three young white men in orange jumpsuits in the federal courthouse, her voice was sharp and forceful.
“The Anderson family forgives, as Christians should,” she said. “We refuse to bear the burden of hate because it is such, such a heavy load to carry. We will leave it to our father in heaven to repay you all. May God have mercy on your sin and sick souls.”
But Bradfield could not forgive. He felt it was unfair for anybody to expect him to. “I hate them,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I hope I do get over this, the anger part. But every time I have to think back to that day, that day when the detective told me he was killed, and I have to relive that all over again, that anger rises up.”
When Anderson’s sister finished speaking, a federal prosecutor stood up to read Bradfield’s statement.
“My heart gets so heavy at times because I feel like a failure because I couldn't keep up on the things Craig did for us,” he said. “I wish none of you would ever see daylight again. There is no room on Earth for people like you.”
The defendants spoke next. They said sorry and asked for forgiveness. They said they had changed. And when they finished, Judge Reeves prepared to read his sentencing statement. Usually defendants stood to hear their sentences, “but this statement is a little long,” Reeves said, and he asked them to sit.
Reeves had lived through a changing Mississippi. His generation was born into the center of the state’s struggle between, as history professor Bolton calls it, “Old Mississippi” and “New Mississippi.” Reeves grew up in Yazoo City, in the Delta, and in the early 1970s he was part of his elementary school’s first integrated class. While at law school at the University of Virginia in 1993, he saw a flier for a fraternity party that stated, “No Jews, No Wops, and No Nigga Babes.”
In 2010, President Obama appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, making him the second black federal judge in the state’s history. Reeves’ seat had once been held by Harold Cox, a segregationist who was known to call black people “baboons” from the bench. Twenty-seven years after Cox’s final day in the courtroom, Reeves looked down from that bench at three young white men convicted of lynching a black man.
“There is something different about Mississippi,” Reeves said, quoting historian Anthony Walton, “something almost unspeakably primal and vicious; something savage unleashed there that has yet to come to rest.”
He spoke of the state’s bloody history and read the names of some of those who had been lynched. The lynching of Craig Anderson, Reeves told the courtroom, “ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi, causing her, our Mississippi, to bleed again.”
“The sadness of this day also has an element of irony to it,” Reeves said. The three white defendants had committed their crimes in a city with a black district attorney and a black mayor; had been escorted into the court by agents who worked for a black U.S. marshal; had been prosecuted by lawyers working for a black U.S. attorney under an office led by a black U.S. attorney general; were being sentenced by a black federal judge; and would be sent into a federal prison system headed by a black director. In order to continue that progress, Reeves suggested to the courtroom, the state had to recognize the blood in its soil.
“See, today we take another step away from Mississippi's tortured past,” Reeves said. “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, our Mississippi story, has not been completely written.”
Deryl Dedmon received 50 years for the federal charge on top of his life sentence on the state charge. John Aaron Rice was sentenced to 18 years and Dylan Butler was sentenced to six and a half years. The other seven defendants awaited their turns.
Two weeks later, Reeves sentenced the second set of defendants. James Bradfield arrived before the courtroom doors were unlocked. A dozen or so white people huddled outside the door. A few of them complained about the job the defense lawyers did in defending their children.
Bradfield sat on a bench down the hall from the crowd with his head in his hands. After the courtroom doors opened, he waited for the rest of the people to file in and find seats and then he entered and took his place at the far right edge of the courtroom. He wore a pink shirt and brown leather shoes. He was not crying.
Montgomery, Gaskamp, and Dominick shuffled in. Bradfield did not look at them. A few minutes into the hearing, Barbara Anderson Young took the witness stand and spoke about her brother and his death as she had in previous hearings. When she finished, Bradfield stood up. He walked slowly past the defendants, lowered himself into the chair on the stand, and then turned toward them. He had not prepared a statement. He told the three young men that they had taken away the man he loved, the father of his child, a gentle and good man. He told them he would never recover from what they did and that he hated them for what they did. He began to tear up, but he did not cry. He didn’t feel sorry for them, he said, and he didn’t forgive them.
Then he stood, marched past them, down the aisle, and out the door. He sat on the bench in the hallway and sobbed.
Inside the courtroom, Reeves sentenced Montgomery to 18 years in prison and Gaskamp and Dominick to four years.
By the end of April, the last of the defendants had been sentenced and the long process was finished. John Louis Blalack was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Robert Rice to 10 years, Shelbie Richards to eight years, and Sarah Graves to five years.
The court process had worn on Bradfield and he was relieved when it ended. “Now I can start trying to live my life,” he said. “Now I can start trying to have a life. Every time I would go to court, it would wake up all that anger and bitterness. It was hard to keep afloat.” The state had moved on from the lynching of Craig Anderson, and Bradfield hoped to as well.
The pain, he said, had not dulled over the years. He had only gotten better at living with it. In his head, throughout the day, he pictured an alternate reality with Anderson. When Bradfield woke up, he imagined Anderson lightly shaking his shoulders, pleading with him to get out of bed and get ready because they were running late. When he poured his coffee, he saw Anderson out on the porch smoking a cigarette.
It was not enough to imagine Anderson, though. Bradfield had to fill the hole left in his absence. He had to serve as both parents for De'Mariouz — the disciplinarian he had always been and also the softer, lenient pushover Anderson had been. When he spoiled De'Mariouz he reminded him that he was only buying the toy because Anderson wanted him to. De'Mariouz had stopped talking about Anderson, and Bradfield feared that his son would lose all memories of him.
On the four-year anniversary of Anderson’s death, Bradfield took De'Mariouz to the cemetery where he was buried. They stood on the gravesite and De'Mariouz placed a bouquet of flowers in the bronze holder above the headstone.
“De'Mariouz, why you don’t talk about Craig anymore?” Bradfield said.
“Daddy, you know why I don’t talk about Craig.”
“No, I don’t. Tell me why.”
“'Cause if I talk about Craig you gon’ cry and I don’t want you to cry and Craig don’t want you to cry.”
Correction: A previous version of this post stated that the Southern Poverty Law Center is based in Jackson. It has an office in Jackson but it is based in Montgomery, Alabama.
Albert Samaha is the criminal justice reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Albert Samaha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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