The Devil in Deryl Dedmon

Article excerpt

Byline: Tony Dokoupil

In a parking lot in Mississippi, he killed a black man with his truck. He's in jail for a hate crime--but his black friends disagree.

"Do you want to go muddin'?"

It's nearly midnight in Brandon, Miss., home to what the FBI calls a gang of "racist thugs" as bad as any in Southern history. I've apparently just met some of them at an all-night car wash, the village square in a town where wrecking and wiping-down your pickup truck marks time as reliably as the calendar. Since last summer, when a local teenager named Deryl Dedmon was accused of murdering a black man for his skin color, reporters have been a regular presence here and at the Sonic Drive-In next door.

Most have been sent off with "no comment, ma'am," or a jerk of the thumb and stern instructions to "take those questions elsewhere." I got the same treatment at first. But after a night of talking about anything else but the town's sudden infamy, the mood softened and the boys--all of whom were with Dedmon either before or during the murder--have decided to show me a good time. Or their version of it anyway.

The plan is to go off-roading in nearby Puckett, home to "300 Good Friendly Folks and 'a Few Old Soreheads,'?" as the town welcome sign reads. One of the boys drives off to get tow chains, "in case we land in a pond." Fifteen minutes later we are packed in a souped-up pickup truck, beers open, slaloming down boggy backroads. We emerge into an overgrown field, where we spin donuts in third gear. Shotgun shells and a hammer bounce around the cab. The truck's muffler has been removed for added horsepower--and noise. "This is our life," yells the driver, whom we'll call Trevor. "This is what we do."

In the very same field last June a plan was hatched that left a 47-year-old African-American man dead--beaten, and then crushed by a truck. In the aftermath, the FBI conducted more than 200 interviews, charging Dedmon and two others--John Aaron Rice and Dylan Butler--in the first civil-rights-related murder case under the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The FBI s still investigating "known and unknown" participants in what they say is a related spree of hate-fueled trips into Jackson, including assaults using beer bottles, shod feet, and a slingshot loaded with marbles, according to the Justice Department.

In what's fashionably called a "post-racial" world, the crimes mostly recall the state's past: Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Mississippi Burning. But it is also part of "an undeniable headwind of intolerance" in this country, according to Thomas Perez, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. He compared the crime to the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man dragged to death behind a pickup truck by white supremacists in Texas, and asked, "how is it possible that such a depraved act could occur?"

"I was young and dumb, ignorant and full of hatred," Dedmon told the court. But just what did that hatred mean?

I went to Mississippi to find out, and what I discovered was deeper, carier, and more complex than a single country boy gone bad or even simple, pre-civil-rights-era racism. In fact, the kids in Dedmon's social circle don't think they're racist at all. Sure, many use the N word, sometimes even in anger. But they say they don't mean it in a racist way, any more than the town's monument to the Confederate dead is meant as a call to arms. "It's heritage, not hate," says Trevor, echoing a common defense of Southern pride. The trips to west Jackson, he and others believe, were driven by social status--reveling in the lawlessness of poor neighborhoods--not skin color. Surprisingly, besides the boys' mothers, their black friends tend to agree.

The Dedmon case is shocking for many reasons, but none more disturbing than this belief that a churchgoing white teenager could kill a blameless African-American man he called a "nigger" and not be a racist. …