Traveling an uncommon path to reach the pinnacle of success.
BY DR. BEVERLY HOGAN PHOTO BY BRIAN HULL
Reuben Anderson has been a consistent public figure in the evolving social, political and economic landscapes of Mississippi for more than four decades. He is viewed as a man of vision and courage, a vital mentor, role model and precedent-setter. Growing up in the small community of St. John near Bolton, Mississippi, and coming of age later in Jackson, young Reuben perhaps never dreamed he would one day step into history and become a difference-maker.
Unlike many African Americans coming of age in the 1960s who left Mississippi, Reuben made a conscious decision to stay in Mississippi and work to help effect the changes needed to improve our city and state. Reuben has lived his life in ways that express his values, beliefs and principles.
There are only a few differences in the diplomatic, unassuming and thoughtful man the public sees and the private man who can be observed relaxed, smiling – even laughing and joking with family and close friends. He smiles often in the presence of his wife, Phyllis, who has a knack for settling him into a less formal state with her engaging personality and charming wit. Phyllis keeps Reuben centered, providing balance and levity in their lives. So does their daughter Raina.
Reuben’s youngest daughter, Raina, has followed in his footsteps, graduating from Tougaloo College and continuing with law school. Love and pride ooze from her when she speaks of her dad. The youngest of three, she says they real- ized early that they were sharing their daddy with millions, but they never felt slighted. To her, he was always just dad- dy, but “There was always a sense that his purpose was bigger than us all.” Growing up with Reuben Anderson as their father, they, as children, got used to the reporters and cameras, news stories, newspaper articles and unspoken expectations. She talks of her father’s Buddha-like presence and how it made the experience more profound than he realizes. She expresses a sense of pride as she talks about meeting so many wonderful people across the state and nation who share many lovely sentiments about her father and his accomplishments. She comments, “He never sought any of it. He sacrificed time away from the most important people in his life – his family – for the greater good of all humanity.” Raina believes he had a calling on his life for this work – the burden of obligation– to which he surrendered with patience, grace and humility. Yet, he managed to be husband and daddy. Raina adds, “I feel blessed to have him as my father and am proud of him beyond what mere words can say.”
Friends who have known Reuben since childhood speak equally admiringly about him – friends like attorney and for- mer Supreme Court Justice Fred Banks. Next to Phyllis, Fred probably knows Reuben better than any other person. They attended Holy Ghost Catholic School, served as altar boys together, played in the recreational facilities of their neighborhood and eventually they practiced law together. Fred describes Reuben as a man who sees opportunity and knows how to optimize it to help make the community better. He adds, “Reuben has the vision, confidence and courage to take the risks that are inherent in blazing new trails. He has the capacity to make good friends in diverse settings and to cultivate those friendships in a variety of ways.”
Reuben Anderson’s well-chronicled career took form during his time as a student at Tougaloo College, beginning in 1960, when this special place was at the center of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. This was during the time student activism was at its peak on the campus and seeds of idealism were planted that Tougaloo students could change the world. Encouraged by attorney Jack Young, a central figure in the civil rights movement, Reuben enrolled in law school, initially at Southern University School of Law. He later transferred to the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1965, becoming a part and symbol of the goals of the civil rights movement – understanding the danger as well as the consequential long-term impact of his sacrificial courage. It was a turbulent time in Mississippi – a period of grave racial strife. It was not a year when the decision to attend the University of Mississippi was easy. As Fred Banks would note, it was a potentially life-threatening decision. It was certainly a decision to leave one’s comfort zone, to put one’s self in the line of fire. But, that is what Reuben did and what he continues to do today.
Reuben graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1967 and immediately joined the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund led by Marian Wright Edelman, along with Fred Banks, where he spent the next three years litigating school desegregation and other civil rights cases from the Legal Defense Fund office on Farish Street. He was a part of the team that argued the case of the Mississippi Loyalist Democrats before the Democratic National Committee in 1968, and presented the motions for new plans of desegregation in the Southern District of Mississippi which eventually led to the landmark decision in Alexander v. Holmes.
Reuben later left most of the civil rights litigation to his other associates--Mel Leventhal, Nausead Stewart and Fred Banks--and started a more traditional law practice with John Nichols. A few years later, Reuben’s career as a judge began with successive appointments to judgeships. He was appointed a part-time city judge for Jackson and Hinds County court judge in 1977. Prior to his appointment, there had never been a person of color elected county-wide. Reuben ran for the position and was elected unopposed in 1977. He was elected unopposed in 1981 to the circuit court. He was appointed to the State Supreme Court by Governor Bill Allain in 1985. He was elected twice to the State Supreme Court, opening the process for other African Americans to serve.
He retired from the Supreme Court in 1991 and he joined the private law firm of Phelps Dunbar, LLP where he served as a partner in the areas of commercial litigation.
Reuben earned a reputation for his diligence, his ability to size up a situation quickly and to see the big picture. He was the go-to-guy for his alma mater Tougaloo College, the go-to-guy for politicians big and small, African Americans and whites, and the go-to-guy for the business community. He worked to make things happen. He knew the mechanics of brokering relationships and getting favorable results.
His remarkable vision and dedication to the economic, political and social betterment of the community has led to the creation of the Jackson Medical Mall, the E-Center at Jackson State University, the Reuben V. Anderson Prelaw Program at Tougaloo College and the Civil Rights Museum in Mississippi. In addition, his service on corporate boards such as AT&T, the Kroger Company and Burlington have reaped benefits for many of the charitable organizations which he supports.
Reuben has traveled an uncommon path to reach the pinnacle of sustained success. Fred Banks offered a powerful summation of Reuben and his lifework: “ There are those who have graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law. There are others who have served as municipal judges, others who have served as a circuit judge and others who have served on their state’s highest court. There are others who have served as president of their state’s bar association and others who have served as president of their state’s Chamber of Commerce. There are others who have served as Chairman of the Board of their undergraduate alma mater, as lead director of their state’s largest home-owned bank, and there are others who have served on as many as three Fortune 500 companies and two other publicly-traded companies at once. There are even a few lawyers who have won a half billion-dollar verdict for their client. There are many men and women who have done these things, but there is probably no other person in America or in history who has done all of these things – and done them well. Reuben Anderson has done all of these things as the first of his race and in his own home state.”
In the forthright, unassuming manner which characterizes him, Reuben attributes much of his success to Jack Young, Sr. for his encouragement and mentorship, the many people who invested in him, and the best decision he made in life - to marry Phyllis Wright. o