I don't know if I've ever met James Craig Anderson. The portrait released to the media after his death looks familiar, but it has been burned on my retinas so completely by now in connection with his killing that I would no longer be able to associate it with anything else. What I do know is that he had 49 full years of life before a white racist gang allegedly murdered him in the parking lot of the Metro Inn in June. The complexity of that life, the day-to-day struggles and achievements and dreams that come with living, will be a mystery to most of us now. Murder has ended his personal story and, for the time being, has drowned out the details of his life with violence.
National media com-mentators speak often of how this is a crime out of Mississippi's past, but it isn't—not any more, if it ever was.
We will never know, and should not presume to know, how many unsolved murders were motivated by racial hatred; most of them did not take place in front of security cameras. What's more, this is not a random crime; the killers were raised in an environment where black Jacksonians are described (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) as subhuman—undeserving of a vote, unworthy of food and clothing and shelter and education, unable to make their own destinies.
I don't know exactly where this belief comes from, but I know where it doesn't come from: It is not based in any way on the real lives and the real stories of African Americans in this city and in the larger community. This image of black Jacksonians is based on centuries-old stereotypes that were used to justify slavery, Jim Crow and the policies that followed, and it is being used now to justify the de facto race and class segregation and color segregation that allows institutional racism to stay alive.
I've been very angry about the murder, and about the strange reaction some locals—usually white locals—have had to it. It is strange to hear someone who refers to 13-year-old black children as "thugs" turn around and refer to 18-year-old white killers as "kids." It's strange to hear someone who usually relishes wall-to-wall crime coverage decide, already, that this murder has received too much media attention. It's strange to hear somebody whose usual approach to crime is "hang 'em high and limit appeals" suddenly transform into an advocate for due process rights and the legal presumption of innocence. This kind of behavior exposes the undercurrent of casual white racism that harms black Mississippians every day, in every measurable area of life.
It's a mistake to look at the murder as a single isolated incident, as if it wasn't built on centuries of white supremacist violence, as if it wasn't the natural product of a racist culture—and as if the killers weren't products of this culture, living out the warped values that hum in the background of our everyday lives. This is not a new disease. This is an acute symptom of a very old chronic disease that cuts short the lives of black Mississippians every day, that limits opportunity, that carves Mississippi in two, that stifles economic development, that teaches all of us not to think too hard or too clearly about the world we live in.
I have decided to do five specific things in response to the killing of James Craig Anderson:
• I will stop apologizing when I hurt other whites' feelings by calling out their words or behavior as racist.
• I will attend more NAACP-sponsored events.
• I will make an effort to stop reading magazines, blogs and other entities that make money off of racism.
• I will read more black authors.
• I will keep my eyes open for opportunities to do more, because none of this will be enough.
As 500 of us walked from New Horizon Church to the Metro Inn last weekend, a multi-faith, multiracial group of speakers asked us to think about peace on the way over and about justice on the way back. I can't give Mississippi justice, but I can try to do a better job of living it. As Mississippians, we are rightly ashamed, at times, of our home state—but it's ours, and it is made out of us.
We aren't just products of Mississippi; we are Mississippi itself. We are three million lives, each as fragile and complicated as that of James Craig Anderson, and we can change together.
Freelance writer Tom Head is a lifelong Jacksonian. He has authored or co-authored 24 nonfiction books on a wide range of topics, is a civil liberties writer for About.com, and volunteers as a grassroots progressive activist.
I love your list of actions, Tom. I'm rather in a take-no-prisoners mood this week on these issues myself. I wonder if others are thinking of things you can do. We should all follow your list. I especially like No. 1.
Hey Tom, it's Gabie. So glad you all are writing about this. I too like your points and will also do more to let people around me know racism in any degree is not ok.
Tom - amen, thank you, yes, and ditto.
Also, when I first heard about this crime, I literally threw up. And now I'm fighting waves of nausea again because somehow, even though at this point I've probably read at least two dozen articles about this awful incident, a word in your piece caught my eye that hadn't before:
How did I miss that little word in so many of the other articles? Yes, I did read over and over again how this crime was initially buried, how it only came to light as more than a 'hit and run' when CNN made the surveillance footage public, etc, but JUNE? This happened two months ago? In the world of Twitter and Facebook and instant-news that we now live in, these killers were still able to hide for that long? And now only one is being charged in the actual murder, one for "simple" assault (taking a deep breath even typing that), and five... nothing?
Your fifth action item is the one resonating with me most right now. We have to do more. We have to make it better, together, because this is not okay. Not now. Not in June. Not in the 1960s. Not in the nineteenth century. Not ever. Please keep doing what you're doing, thinking how you're thinking, acting how you're acting. Many blessings on everyone working for change. It's hard work - and when the work is hard, that's usually a sign that it's exactly what needs doing.
Great column, Tom. You mention that "This kind of behavior exposes the undercurrent of casual white racism that harms black Mississippians every day." I'll add that this behavior harms Mississippians in general. The national take on Mississippi is that it's still pretty backwards. This just reinforces that stereotype. I hope that people all over the country can see that there are actually some progressive people in Mississippi willing to push change. (Although I realize we do have a lot of change to make.)