By William Plummer
May 20, 1985 12:00 PM

When Reuben Anderson took his seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court four months ago, colleague Mike Sullivan presented him with a bottle of L’Oréal red hair coloring. Sullivan informed Anderson that the last three justices to be appointed to the court, himself included, were redheads and that they were making Reuben an honorary member of the club. On a more recent morning, just before the nine justices closeted themselves for the day’s work, court jester Sullivan held Anderson’s black robe for him (see photo preceding page). “In the old days,” he cracked, “we used to put on white robes when we went to see you guys.”

The good-natured ribbing was to be expected. The son of a Jackson, Miss, bricklayer, the lanky, quiet-spoken Reuben Anderson, 42, is the first black ever to sit on the Mississippi Supreme Court. Justice Anderson has settled into his new job with an ease that seems to suggest that Mississippi has always been a Peaceable Kingdom and that there never was a Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, the retired justice whose place he fills, crusty Francis Bowling, says of Anderson, “Reuben’s color is not important one way or another [to his appointment]. He has an excellent reputation. He’s educated and experienced. His appointment is a historic thing in Mississippi, but the judiciary in this state is not as bad as they make us out to be in other parts. Black or white, Judge Anderson’s simply the best man for the job.”

Still, the ironies of Anderson’s appointment lie close to the surface and are scarcely lost on the justice himself. When Reuben was an impassioned civil rights lawyer in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Gov. Bill Allain, who had just appointed him to the state’s top court, was then an assistant attorney general. The two men clashed, recalls Anderson, because Allain “was on the other side of civil rights cases during the ’60s.” These days Anderson is greeted with affection and respect as he moves toward his luncheon table in the tony Capital City Petroleum Club, atop a Jackson office building. He is reminded, however, of the days when he was ordered out of two-bit diners because he was black. He chuckles, remembering the time he went into a rural eatery with two white companions. “I have to serve this nigger,” the owner said to Anderson’s friends, “but I don’t have to serve y’all.”

Anderson was born Aug. 16, 1942 into a world divided. “Growing up in Mississippi in the ’50s,” he says, “the problem was I didn’t see a whole lot of good to aspire to. Everything was segregated: Schools, water fountains, everything had ‘white’ and ‘colored’ signs on it. But I did enjoy my childhood. I had a large family, and I hunted and fished with my father. We accepted segregation just as everyone else did,” Anderson adds. “We never had contact with white people unless we went to their houses to work. We were fearful of what would happen if we didn’t say, ‘Yes-sir.’ We lived in a neighborhood not far from a white park, but we couldn’t go there. The reality of the situation didn’t hit me until I was a teenager. It was then I started wondering why.”

Anderson attended Tougaloo College in Jackson on a football scholarship, although, he admits, “I wasn’t worth a darn at the game.” He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. “But I knew it got hot in Mississippi in the summer,” he says, “and I didn’t want to be laying brick.” Then he caught the attention of Jack Young, one of only four black lawyers in the state in the mid-’60s (there are more than 200 today), who encouraged him to go to law school. Trouble was, the state university law school at Oxford was a sort of club. You had to have 10 letters of recommendation from alumni, and Reuben had not even taken the necessary tests. The Ole Miss school rejected his application initially, and Anderson enrolled at Baton Rouge’s Southern University for his first year of law studies. At that point, the Ole Miss law school dean, a Yalie named Joshua Morse, went out of his way for Reuben, waiving the usual requirements and actually getting him into Ole Miss on a scholarship. Getting into the school was only the half of it, however. As one of five blacks in a student body of approximately 7,000, he was continually harassed. “I was pushed off the sidewalk,” he says. “They threw things at me when I went to the theater. I just kept telling myself I was there to get a law degree, not to enjoy myself. I knew that if I had to go to a class where the professor was a racist, I would flunk. I had a class under a professor who never called on me all year. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I got a C. But other professors were helpful. They spent extra time with me, lent me money when I ran short. I have a lot of pleasant memories of them.”

After graduation in 1967 Anderson entered a partnership with three other black lawyers, including his childhood friend Fred Banks. In this practice he functioned as associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. All told, his firm was involved in the integration of more than 100 school systems in Mississippi, as well as many public-accommodation and voting-rights suits. “It was a very busy time,” says Reuben. In 1975 Anderson was appointed municipal court judge in Jackson. “It was tough for me to have to sit there and rule on traffic cases,” he says. Two years later he became county court judge and moved up to the circuit court in 1981. Then came the new job.

Some years back, when his weight soared to 218 pounds, Reuben took up running. “I was afraid I was going to have a heart attack,” he says. “I had high blood pressure. I smoked. I decided I wanted to stay around here and see my kids grow up. So I started running half a mile. I got my endurance up and entered the London [England] Marathon last April.” Now a trim 182, he has finished five marathons to date. With the tightly packed court calendar of his new judgeship, however, he has had to cut down on his running and his golf, although he still maintains a four handicap. Phyllis, Anderson’s wife since 1969, says her husband’s latest career move has meant that she and Raina, 10, and Vincent, 12, see less of Reuben than ever. But she’s philosophical, even judicious. “If he’s happy,” she says, “then we’re happy.”

In his scarce spare time Anderson likes to talk to black kids, presenting himself unabashedly as an example of what’s possible. “The thing I want to do is tell these young blacks, ‘Here I am. I’m black like you,’ ” he says. “I want to give them something to aspire to.”

Still, Anderson is uneasy in the public glare. He tells about recently going out for a beer to a local pub with his brother-in-law. All of a sudden, somebody announced over the PA system that the illustrious arbiter Reuben Anderson had bellied up to the bar. “Everybody started buying us drinks,” says Anderson. “It was embarrassing but wonderful all the same. I haven’t gone to that many public places since.”