OXFORD, Miss. — A man once said Mississippi is an incredible state — full of talented musicians, gifted authors, actors, athletes — but the problem is we can’t keep ‘em.
That is in large part because of the past. But we met a man who’s doing everything he can to change the future.
Anyone who grew up in the ’60s will remember a time of turmoil. America was at war overseas, and at home, a powder keg of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. In the eye of that storm, the son of a Mississippi bricklayer was making plans for the future.
Judge Reuben Anderson’s future is now part of Mississippi’s past.
On the University of Mississippi campus, he became the first African American to graduate from the all-white law school. It was two years that changed his life.
“I spent two years at Ole Miss law school,” Anderson said. “It was probably some of the most difficult times of my life.”
Racism was alive and well in the Magnolia State. He has vivid memories of being targeted and harrassed on campus.
“Mississippi has such an ugly history,” Anderson said, and yet continued, “yeah, it’s one of my favorite places.”
When Anderson graduated, he was one of only five African American lawyers in the state.
However, he said, those other lawyers didn’t go to law school. They couldn’t.
In the ’60s, blacks were turned away from many of the top law schools, until Anderson blazed a trail for others to follow.
“I spent the first five years of my career as a civil rights lawyer, integrating Mississippi,” Anderson said.
He walked the razor’s edge of Southern history — desegregation, voter’s rights, and ultimately behind the bench after he was appointed circuit judge.
“The first time I went to Yazoo County, the courthouse was segregated. Black people sat on one side, and the white people sat on the other side,” he remembered. “I just had everybody to go outside and come back in and alternate.”
That was 1981. At the time, Anderson was the only Black circuit judge in the state.
Eventually, three governors appointed him to the bench. The first was in 1977, Gov. Cliff Finch. By 1985, another governor was calling, making this pioneer the first African American appointed to the state supreme court.
Today Anderson is the oldest black member of the Mississippi bar. And perhaps the most highly regarded.
By the late ’90s he’d be elected the first African American president of the state bar association.
By the time 2020 rolled around, he had witnessed so much, he was named president of the state’s Department of Archives and History and chairman of the state civil rights museum.
“Those museums are for us to get our school kids through there to see all of the mistakes that we made in Mississippi, and make sure that they understand why we are on the bottom and get us off of the bottom by understanding our history,” Anderson said.
Judge Anderson now spends his days encouraging young African Americans to the top.
“I graduated from Tougaloo College, and have funded the Reuben Anderson Pre-Law Society, and it’s been in existence for 30 years.”
And he recently made a large donation to the University of Mississippi law school, sending as many as 24 law students to school in a year, so Mississippi can keep the best and brightest, and get off the bottom.
He believes the state took a step in that direction when people voted to take the Confederate flag off Mississippi’s state flag. He was appointed chairman of the Mississippi flag commission.
“We’ve suffered under this flag for over a hundred and twenty five years,” Anderson said. “When we took down the flag, we headed in another direction.”
An African American man helping to abolish the Confederate flag, a Mississippi judge writing another chapter for the state’s history books.
“We’re going to be a different state. We’re going to get off the bottom,” Anderson said. “It won’t happen, like I said, in my lifetime. But I can assure you, my grandkids will see a different state.”