Mississippi Racism: What it will take to “Move Forward”

By: Kevin Murriel

Is History Not Enough?

For twenty-one years I lived in the city of Brandon, Mississippi and was convinced that in spite of all the obstacles I would have to overcome due to the climate of racism and the common practice of prejudice, I would succeed and move forward with the life that God had given me. Each morning that I woke up I had to live with the tension of being a young black man in a historically racist environment and many nights prayed that this horrific, heinous and detrimental past would yield to a more hopeful future for all people of this state. Yet it seems that even after the significant struggle for civil rights, the tension of dealing with racially motivated murders, and the fight for economic and social equality–Mississippi is still haunted by its prejudice past with individuals wondering if a future hope of equality is even possible.

Upon reading about the James C. Anderson murder that took place on the morning of June 26, 2011 in Jackson Mississippi, I simply said to myself “here we go again.” And in reflection on this horrendous crime, it occurred to me that we have only scratched the surface with regards to race relations in Mississippi. No one simply wakes up in the morning and says, “I hate black people” or “I hate white people.” Rather, it is systematically embedded within one’s conscience and psyche through continual interactions with those who promote and teach the ideas of racism to those with whom they are connected. These things are generational and are passed down through families and institutions that perpetuate prejudice and in turn, negatively affect the social environment in which they are located.

What drives a mob of angry white teenagers to seek out (or hunt) a black man, brutally beat him, and without any humanitarian conviction, end his life? Obviously, it goes beyond the surface of simply being angry with someone black; but rather unearths what has been present inwardly that was triggered by an encounter, that in the end, brought forth the inevitable–death and destruction. No matter how you categorize it or try to excuse it, racial prejudice always ends negatively. Whether it is in the act of killing someone of the opposite race or through the use of language that presumes a racist idea, someone or some group of people is always hurt because of it. In this instance, however, it will be the family of Mr. James Anderson that will hurt and grieve. And it will be the community and the state that in many ways will also suffer.

Has Mississippi not learned from its dark past? Were the racially motivated murders of Medgar Evars, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and countless others not enough? And again, the United States and the world now looks at Mississippi (my native state) with yet another eye of contempt and disappointment. When will things change? When will economic, social, and racial equality be written into the books of history in the state of Mississippi? Or a better question to ask is who will step up and change this history? Because while a family mourns and a grim reality is continually overshadowing a bright future, racism and prejudice continue to permeate the atmosphere in the state of Mississippi. It is evident statistically and is shown obviously through the inexcusable murder of Mr. James C. Anderson.

How should justice be served?

While capital murder charges loom over the teen, Daryl Dedmon, (a resident of Brandon, Mississippi) for allegedly running over a disoriented James Anderson in a green Ford F250 pickup truck and subsequently bragging about the incident, individuals in the black community are wondering if this case will be handled in the “traditional” manner or if justice will truly be served to the full extent of the law. According to police reports, there were seven teens total involved in this incident and that early on the morning of June 26, 2011 they were looking for “a nigger” they could “mess with.” They decided to drive to the predominantly African-American city of Jackson and upon getting off of the interstate, spotted Mr. Anderson, approached him, beat him, and eventually killed him in the parking lot of a nearby hotel. According to a witness, the teens screamed “White Power” while blatantly beating their victim.

It would be very simple to say that only one individual “killed” Mr. Anderson and that person alone should face the penalty of justice. But realistically, although only one person may have driven to murder vehicle, there were six others involved in the totality of the racist act. Therefore, justice in some way should be served with regards to all seven teenagers. There is no innocent person in this negligent and hostile situation. None of the seven can say, “I did nothing”–for doing nothing to stop this brutal act was just as wrong as committing the act itself. Nevertheless, each of these individuals should be held accountable for ending the life of this innocent human being and while each sentence may be different, justice should not be overlooked simply because these are teenagers who are apart of the dominant race in Mississippi.

Why the death penalty should NOT be pursued

There have been reports and claims that because a capital murder charge has been brought against Daryl Dedmon, the death penalty should be sought to gain retribution for the act committed. In my judgment, the pursuit of the death penalty in this case would only set Mississippi back further. One life has already been lost, and while I do not agree with nor condone the horrible actions of Daryl Dedmon and the other teenagers, I do not think the death penalty would go beyond the notion of “killing one who has killed another.” The issues surrounding racism will still remain and the only immediate consolation that the family and community of Mr. James Anderson will have is that the young man who killed their loved one is also dead. But this accomplishes nothing. As a pastor, I have learned that people often do terrible things and because terrible things are done, consequences must be rendered. Yet the hope I possess as a Christian is that the lessons learned from the terrible acts committed might change the person who committed the act inwardly so that same individual might be an agent of change back in society.

I am certainly not suggesting that Daryl Dedmon should not be held to the full extent of the law and be released from jail. But as a believer in the transforming power of Jesus Christ, my faith tells me that something other than two deaths can come out of this situation. It is true that the family of Mr. James Anderson will have this piece of history as a part of their family narrative; however, they are able to control how this narrative will proceed. In deliberations on whether they should seek the death penalty or the alternative option of life in prison without parole, I would suggest the latter. From various perspectives, it is understandable for one to want revenge or for something bad to be done to one who did something bad to another. However, blacks in Mississippi have always thrived on the concept of community and have persevered through hardships whether justice was served or not. Now is no different. The one thing that has changed, however, is the fact that justice in this situation will be the loudest voice. People from all over the country and world are rallying behind this situation and the family of Mr. James C. Anderson. Justice will be served; but how it is served will in many ways tell if Mississippi is ready to move forward with reconciliation towards a brighter future.

What it will take for Mississippi to Move Forward

Ironically, living in Mississippi taught me quite a bit about life. First, it taught me to truly appreciate my roots and the struggle blacks had to endure so that I might have a future filled with more possibilities. Secondly, I learned that people inherently have the ability to change and when truly pursued, change is possible. If Mississippi is to change and not be seen as a state of social segregation, racial prejudice, and economic inequality then it must redefine itself with equality and justice for all at the core of its being. How does this happen?

First, it happens by the discontinuation of racist ideas passed down through families. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers have got to stop telling their children and grandchildren that one group is superior to another–especially because of their race. Because when this happens, the children grow up continually holding themselves above others because of their race and eventually perpetuate the same injustices when they get older. In essence, if the lessons of blatant racism that are taught in families are discontinued, then interactions between racial groups have a greater possibility of changing. Next, the government system in Mississippi must have the benefit of all people at the forefront of its activity. There can no longer be laws that are passed that lean more positively towards one race of people and more negatively towards another–especially with regards to economic policy. According to Dr. Marianne Hill of the Center for Policy Research and Planning at the Mississippi Institute for Higher Learning, the wage gaps between black and white Mississippians remain substantial. In her study titled “The Economic Status of African Americans in Mississippi,” Hill writes:

The median household income of African-Americans in the state in 2006 was $21,969 or just 51% that of white households ($43,139). Lower household incomes also result in a wealth gap. Only 26% of African Americans here had homes valued at more than $70,000 in 2000, while 60% of whites did.

Blacks in Mississippi have never had the luxury of being in an economically prominent position neither have they had this luxury racially. However, if Mississippi is to move forward, the economic and racial ethos must promote equality not only socially, but also through policy changes and intentional strides towards a government system that works in the best interest of everyone. Thirdly, the Church and other religious institutions must be the prophetic voices of reason that transcend the boundaries of race and preaches a more successful future at the intersection of society and government. Pastors and other religious leaders most model the concept of equality in their congregations and make this a core teaching to their parishioners. If these things are taught in some of the most influential (religious) institutions in the world, then the likelihood of this message of equality spreading will become greater.

Consequently, the hope that I have for my home state is embedded in the American dream and is written in one of the great documents of our country–The Declaration of Independence– that states, “All men are created equal.” Equality comes with a price that everyone has to pay. But that price should not come at the cost of murder and injustice. Tragically, the death of Mr. James C. Anderson is a testament to the fact that Mississippi still has a long way to go before equality for all people in this state is realized and racial prejudice is truly “a thing of the past.” Nonetheless, I am hopeful that this tragedy will not set Mississippi back but will be a reminder that justice cannot be replaced with injustice and that when another life is taken because of racism, everyone suffers.

About the writer:

Kevin Murriel was born on May 28, 1986 in Brandon, Mississippi. He received his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Jackson State University (Jackson, Ms.), his master’s degree in Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (Atlanta, GA.) and is currently pursuing his doctor of ministry degree from Duke University (Durham, NC.). Kevin is a United Methodist pastor in the North Georgia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and is the author of the book, “Who’s Afraid of the Journey? 8 Steps to Help You Walk in the Confidence of Christ!” Read more about Kevin at www.kevinmurriel.com.