Righting Wrongs

The Mississippi Judge Who Schooled a Lynching Trial on Racism

Carlton Reeves, who is gaining much-deserved fame for his searing address at the sentencing of three men for a 2011 hate crime, shows how justice can be achieved—even in his home state.

02.19.15 10:15 AM ET

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves stunned the legal world and beyond when he delivered an unvarnished history lesson on Mississippi’s scarred racial past as he sentenced three young white men for a hate crime chillingly reminiscent of the “n----- hunts” that once passed for sport in the state. Reeves used that toxic word 11 times in his courtroom speech last week, quoting scholars and historians to document how in the name of “white power” the men before him had gone to “Jafrica”—their word for the capital city of Jackson, which is 80 percent African-American—to look for black people to terrorize.

“On June 26, 2011, four days short of his 49th birthday, the blood of James Anderson was added to Mississippi’s soil,” Reeves said. The dead man’s last breaths were taken as one of the defendants gleefully drove his vehicle over and over the body. In the old Mississippi, the killers would have gone unpunished and their marauding dismissed as acceptable racially inspired pranks. In the new Mississippi, they face long sentences.

“The sadness of this day also has an element of irony to it,” Reeves noted. The defendants were facing an African-American judge after being prosecuted in a legal and criminal justice system that in the past “operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding what these defendants would call white power.” Reeves had the three men sit while he spoke at length and pondered how racial hatred could transform them into “mindless murderers and sadistic torturers,” committing crimes that “ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi…causing her to bleed again.”

Reeves spoke without bitterness, delivering lessons from the past and applying them to a present and a future that is being written in the state he loves, where he sees so much promise and yet there is much to overcome.

Carlton Reeves was born in Fort Hood, Texas, where his father was in the military, but that’s not where he’s from. He’s from Yazoo City, Mississippi, 10.9 square miles of Southern Gothic folklore, and in his 50 years on earth Reeves is the personification of the wished-for transformation of Mississippi. He was in the first class integrated from first grade through high school, and after attending Jackson State University, a historically black college, he earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, a credential that could have been his ticket out of Mississippi.

“He wanted to come back here and be in the thick of things, and he’s done it in a beautiful way,” said former U.S. attorney Brad Pigott, a Clinton appointee who tapped Reeves at age 31 to head the civil division and then partnered with him in a law firm that championed racial inclusiveness with two white and two black founders. When President Obama, with the blessing of Mississippi’s two Republican senators, named Reeves to the federal bench in December 2010, this son of Yazoo City became the second African American so honored. President Reagan appointed the first, Henry Wingate, a conservative, in 1985.

Pigott recalled how then Gov. Haley Barbour, another exceedingly proud son of Yazoo City, left a voicemail for Reeves congratulating him on being nominated for the federal bench, then adding a humorous jab: “I knew somebody in Henry’s class would amount to something.” Reeves and Henry Barbour, Haley’s nephew, had been friends since sixth grade. Henry Barbour was in the news last year helping Republican Sen. Thad Cochran round up black votes to help him survive a Tea Party challenge.

Relationships like that, says Pigott, are what shaped and formed Reeves. “He’s a jewel, Carlton is, the kind of judge who really thinks about the moral significance of what’s going on around him,” Pigott said.

In the afterword to Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote, by Justice Department civil rights lawyer Gordon A. Martin Jr., Reeves writes of savoring his confirmation to the judicial seat once held by Harold Cox, an avowed segregationist known for being an explicit racist from the bench. Cox called African Americans “baboons” and initially declined to prosecute those responsible for the deaths of three civil rights workers. After the U.S. Supreme Court reversed him, he issued only light sentences of five to 10 years, explaining, “They killed one n-----, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.”

It was after 7 o’clock Tuesday evening when I called Judge Reeves’s chambers expecting to leave a message. He answered the phone, and while explaining that he shouldn’t make any public comment while most of the 10 men involved in the 2011 hate crime were awaiting sentencing, he did steer me to his writing and that of others to help me understand what he’s about. He did answer one question: What’s so special about Yazoo City?

“It’s a small town where you knew everyone. We saw divisions, but I have a sense of pride being from Mississippi,” he said. “Mississippi has a lot of growing up to do, and we all need to be part of that growing up.” Reeves did not bite when asked if there was a backlash to his ruling last November against the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. He noted in his hard-hitting opinion that 86 percent of Mississippi voters supported the ban. “The courts do not wait out the political process when constitutional rights are being violated, especially when the political process caused the constitutional violations in the first place,” he said in his ruling. The same-sex marriage case is among several that will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rhonda Cooper, an attorney who teaches constitutional law and introduction to law at Jackson State University, took her students to the hearing on same-sex marriage where Reeves presided. They got there at 7:30 a.m. to be first in line when the courtroom opened at 8. His ruling, as always, was part history lesson, part moral imperative. Reeves noted how the Ku Klux Klan vilified gay people and that Mississippi still has an anti-sodomy law that sends a chilling message, even though it’s no longer enforceable. “Because he is a scholar and he has such a large heart, he is always listened to,” said Cooper. “There’s nothing he could say to any audience that would be construed as offensive because he does speak from the heart, he does challenge us.”

Reeves’s only child, a daughter, attends Jackson State, and he is a big believer in the importance of historically black institutions providing unique opportunities to African Americans and preparing them for a sometimes hostile environment. At the University of Virginia, Reeves and another law student challenged a fraternity posting party invites that said, “No Jews, No W--s, and No N---a Babes.” They lost in a university ruling on First Amendment grounds but learned where the fight was, and how to wage it.

One of Reeves’s favorite cases involved a black woman, Johnnie Mae Johnson, who lost a close election for alderman-at-large in the small town of Drew, Mississippi. She alleged that poll workers had thrown out the votes of blacks without cause, and to build a case, Reeves had to persuade the black voters to testify in court. An account in the book Beyond the Big Firm describes how prominent white citizens filled the courtroom in an effort to “stare down the black witnesses, many of whom were maids or nannies or otherwise employed by the whites. Carlton’s eyes shine as he recalls how ‘those old ladies came up there and took the stand and told the judge that they wanted their vote to count. And that was very, very powerful.’” A new election was called, Johnson won, and the judge that Reeves is today was shaped by that experience. “I believe in the rule of law and in using it to achieve justice across the board,” he told an interviewer. It can be done, even in Mississippi.