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Victim's Family Files Wrongful Death Suit

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Family of James Anderson files wrongful death lawsuit against a group of white teenagers. Anderson, a black man, was beaten up and run over in what authorities say was a racially motivated killing. The case is being filed by the Cochran law firm and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: Now, a Mississippi murder case that has echoes of the state's long struggle with racial violence. Today, civil rights groups joined the family of James Anderson to sue over what authorities say was a racially motivated murder. The wrongful death lawsuit is against a group of white teenagers who allegedly beat up and killed Anderson just because he was black. NPR's Debbie Elliott has the story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Anderson's family filed a civil claim seeking monetary damages today from seven white teenagers, all from the predominately white suburbs of Jackson, Mississippi. The complaint alleges that after a night of drinking they loaded into a Jeep Cherokee and a pickup truck and headed into the city, after using profane and racist language to plan to target blacks.

They found James Anderson in a hotel parking lot. He was beaten, and then run over by the pickup truck - some of it captured on the hotel's surveillance cameras.

The complaint also alleges that some of the suspects yelled "white power" during the attack. Jackson attorney Winston Thompson represents Anderson's family.

WINSTON THOMPSON: We allege that all seven individuals took part in what we called a joint venture, to seek out and do harm to a person of color; in this particular instance it was James Craig Anderson, a black individual, whom they did murder..

ELLIOTT: Anderson was a 48-year-old autoworker. Thompson says there's no reason why he should've been singled out other than the color of his skin.

THOMPSON: He attended Hyde Park Missionary Baptist church here in Jackson. He sang in the choir, paid his taxes on time. He went to work. He came home. He was just an average, ordinary citizen.

ELLIOTT: Two of the teens also face state criminal charges in the case. The driver of the truck, 19-year-old Deryl Dedmon, is jailed on capital murder charges. And another defendant, John Aaron Rice, is charged with assault. Their attorneys have not returned phone calls for comment, but in earlier proceedings have denied that it was a racially motivated attack.

After a hearing was postponed today, Dedmon's lawyer, Cynthia Stuart, spoke briefly with reporters in the courthouse.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Can you tell me what it says at least?

CYNTHIA STUART: We don't have any official comment.

ELLIOTT: The Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Alabama-based group that tracks hate crimes, is helping with the Anderson family's case. Founder Morris Dees noted the historic nature of the moment.

MORRIS DEES: I think it's kind of ironic that we're standing in front of the Hinds County courthouse nearly 20 years after Byron de le Beckwith was convicted - finally convicted for killing Medgar Evers. And now we're dealing with a crime that's almost as horrendous: picking out and targeting an African-American and killing him just because of his race.

ELLIOTT: The case has received national attention in the context of Mississippi's racist past. But Dees says the underlying problem is not a Southern one, pointing to similar hate-crime lawsuits his group has brought in New York, Texas, and elsewhere.

DEES: This isn't just something that happens in Mississippi. This is something that's happening all across the nation.

ELLIOTT: Later by phone, Dees said the murder reveals the underlying racial divide in America.

DEES: And I think these young people were angry. They were frustrated. Their way of life is changing. They were looking for somebody to strike out at and they took off on this venture. They'd been drinking. Maybe increased their courage and reduced their responsibility level, so to speak, in understanding what they were doing. And they all jumped into two cars to go, like, have some fun.

ELLIOTT: Dees says the wrongful death lawsuit names all seven teens, not just the two who have been criminally charged, because they all had a legal duty to stop the violent attack and alert police, but didn't do so.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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