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A Jurist With a Long Career of Firsts : Anderson 1st Black to Sit on Mississippi High Court

Charles Hillinger's America

March 27, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

JACKSON, Miss. — When Reuben V. Anderson became a lawyer in 1967, he made it a practice to carry his diploma with him into the courtrooms of this state.

Even so, some judges would not permit black attorneys into their courtrooms, recalled Anderson, who was appointed Mississippi's first black Supreme Court judge in 1985.

But things have changed in this state where many of the best-known battles for equality were fought in the '50s and '60s, said Anderson, one of the nation's nine black state Supreme Court judges.

"You would never recognize it if you were here in the 1960s and came back now," he said. "It's like a new place."

Most Americans think Mississippi is "a backwater place where racial conflicts are going on all the time," he said. In fact, it has more black elected officials than any other state and "race relations today are probably much better here than in most other states."

Anderson, 45, whose great-great-grandparents were slaves in Mississippi, was born in this capital city and was graduated from a segregated school. His late father was a brick mason.

Law School

After he was graduated from Jackson's Tougaloo College, Anderson studied for his law degree at the University of Mississippi where he was one of only five black students.

When he became the sixth black lawyer practicing in Mississippi, Anderson said: "There was a dire need for attorneys to handle civil rights cases. I was right in the thick of battle from the start of my career."

Anderson was a principal partner in a Jackson law firm when he was appointed the first black municipal court judge in 1976. The following year he was named the state's first black county court judge, and, four years later, the first black on the state's circuit court.

In 1985, Gov. William Allain named Anderson to the nine-member Supreme Court. "It was the greatest day of my life, other than when Phyllis and I were married," said the quiet-spoken justice who is up for election in May but is unopposed for an eight-year term.

Anderson said it is important that blacks be represented on the state Supreme Court, "especially since 39% of the 2.6 million who live in the state are black."

Roy Noble Lee, 72, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, described Anderson's selection to the court as "proper and wise on the part of the governor.

"Judge Anderson was a good trial judge and well versed in law when he came here," said Lee. "He holds great respect among his fellow judges. He is definitely an asset to this court."

In his office Anderson poked a plug of tobacco into his pipe, lighted up and explained that Mississippi's Supreme Court "is a moderate court with one of the heaviest case loads of any Supreme Court in the nation."

"We deal with a great many important decisions during our year-round session--what the Legislature can and cannot do, what utilities can and cannot charge."

Two people have been executed since Anderson joined the court, and he voted for the death penalty in both cases. "The defendants happened to be black," he said. "They were both executed because they were particularly brutal murder and armed-robbery cases. I also have had occasion to reverse the death penalty.

"I don't think anybody is in favor of the death penalty, seeing people die. But that is part of our system of justice. Our law requires it under certain circumstances."

Anderson said he devotes a great deal of time speaking to young blacks. "I tell them about the differences between racism today compared to what it was in the 1960s. Many of our problems now deal with the subtleties of racism.

"We have made great progress and there is much more progress to be made. Unemployment is high. There is poverty and lack of education. I tell the young people they face many problems today that I never faced as a young person."

Anderson, the father of two children, serves on a dozen different boards, including the Ole Miss Alumni Assn., the Jackson Chamber of Commerce and the First National Bank. He is a 7-handicap golfer and wishes he had more time to play.

"When I was a student at Ole Miss, I couldn't get anyone to speak to me, so I started playing golf and I have been playing and enjoying the game ever since."

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