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Judge turns hate crimes case into vision of a 'new Mississippi'

In sentencing three white men in a hate crimes case, a federal judge has highlighted how Mississippi is slowly coming to grips with its legacy of racial violence. How far has the 'new Mississippi' come?

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    A Hinds County Sheriff's Department deputy directs Deryl Dedmon to a seat in a Hinds County courtroom in Jackson, Miss., in this 2012 file photo. Mr. Dedmon was sentenced to federal prison on Feb. 10 following a hate crimes investigation.
    Rogelio V. Solis/AP/File
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A Mississippi judge on Wednesday sentenced three white men to prison on federal hate crime charges after a 2011 intimidation campaign in Jackson, Miss., that led to the death of a black man, James Craig Anderson. 

The campaign mimicked the actions of Mississippi white supremacists during Jim Crow and the run-up to the civil rights era, a fact that, ironically, made the sentencing proceedings a window into what the judge called a "new Mississippi."

The shadow of Mississippi's combustible racial past still lingers, as evidenced by the evidence in Wednesday's case. The campaign of attacks against random black people in Jackson, Miss., by a group of then-mostly teenage boys and several girls came to an end when the group killed Mr. Anderson by first beating him and then running him over with a truck.

"The court believes, but for the death of James Craig Anderson, [the defendants] would have ... continued their mission to harm, their mission to hurt," Judge Carlton Reeves said Wednesday.

But Judge Reeves, who is black and has spent most of his life in Mississippi, also offered a more hopeful view of his state.

Earlier this month, while sentencing another member of the group to 50 years in prison, he added: "Mississippi is a place and a state of mind. Those who think they know her people and her past need to understand that our story is not completely written."

On Wednesday, he implored the convicted men to "fully commit to making a positive difference in the new Mississippi."

What is this "new Mississippi"?

It is a state that has more black elected officials (1,075) than any other, but has not elected an African-American to statewide office since Reconstruction.

It is a state where the son of the man who murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson 1963 has been part of several recent Freedom Summer celebrations in memory of the civil rights movement heyday in the Deep South.

It is a state where the flagship university, known as "Ole Miss," banned Confederate flags at football games in 2003, but where members of the school's Greek community hung a noose around the neck of a statue of integrationist James Meredith last year.

On Wednesday, remorse on the part of some of the defendants quietly became part of Mississippi’s efforts both to recognize and atone for its legacy of racial violence and intimidation.

"There are no right words for me to be able to say how sorry I am," said Joseph Paul Dominick, who was sentenced to four years. "There are no words to right the wrongs."

The case involves 10 defendants, including eight people who were there when Mr. Anderson was murdered, and another two who had taken part in previous assaults. The group repeatedly drove into downtown Jackson, which they referred to as “Jafrica” – a combination of Jackson and Africa – to assault and intimidate black people with beer bottles and ball bearings launched from sling shots.

On Feb. 10, Deryl Dedmon was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison, while co-conspirators John Aaron Rice received 19 years and Dylan Wade Butler received seven years for their roles in Anderson’s death. On Wednesday, Kirk Montgomery was given a 19-year-sentence and Jonathan Kyle Gaskamp and Mr. Dominick, who were part of the group but were not present when Anderson died, each received four-year sentences.

All had pleaded guilty to a variety of crimes, including conspiracy to commit hate crimes.

Speaking to the defendants, Reeves said: "Justice will not be complete unless these defendants – unless you – use the remainder of your lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi; that Mississippi which is only two years shy of celebrating its bicentennial. Prove to your family, your friends and all those who have read about this case that you were worth saving."

Reeves’s comments about a “new” Mississippi speak to changes in the Magnolia State.

Fundamental changes began 40 years ago, many argue, when Bill Waller became governor in 1971. As a county prosecutor, he twice tried Byron de la Beckwith for the murder of Evers. Conventional wisdom suggested that white voters would have held this against him.

Today, Philadelphia, Miss., scene of the so-called “Mississippi Burning” murders, has elected its first black mayor (in 2009), and local efforts helped federal investigators dig up enough additional evidence to charge a local preacher, Edgar Ray Killen, for organizing the killings. In 2005, a jury of nine whites and three blacks convicted Mr. Killen of manslaughter, and a judge sentenced the 80-something man to 60 years in prison.

Indeed, the shifting federal scene has changed things for Mississippi, too, Reeves said during his Feb. 10 sentencing of Mr. Dedmon and two other defendants: "Each defendant was escorted in by African-American U.S. Marshals, prosecuted by an African-American Assistant U.S. Attorney, from an office headed by an African-American U.S. Attorney, under an African-American Attorney General, and my final act will be to turn them over to the Bureau of Prisons, which is also led by an African American."

Many Mississippians, thanks in large part to the inspiration of former Gov. William Winter (1980-84), have insisted that acknowledging the bonds of the past will help liberate the state from its reputation.

Mr. Winter famously changed his stance on segregation through his career in public office, and is widely seen as the first major advocate for reconciliation. Winter argued that segregation didn’t just entrap black people, but also put white people in bondage in terms of how they thought about race. With everyone so attuned to the past, Mississippi, he has said, struggled to look forward.

"We are all in this together," Winter told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger last year.

“Mississippi has come a long way since the days of segregation,” Clarion-Ledger reporter Jimmie Gates, who is black, wrote in December. “I’m not saying the state is an oasis for racial tolerance, but as a native Mississippian, I can attest to the progress the state has made in race relations.”

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