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'Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy,' by Paul Hendrickson

Photo is a window into roots of racism, change in the South

Sunday, April 13, 2003

By Elizabeth Bennett

Paul Hendrickson got the idea for this remarkable book in 1995 while thumbing through a collection of civil rights photographs. One picture stopped him in his tracks.

 
 
"Sons of Mississippi:
A Story of Race
and Its Legacy"

By Paul Hendrickson

Knopf

($26.95)

   
 

Published in a double-truck spread in Life magazine in 1962, it featured seven Mississippi sheriffs, one of whom is taking practice swings with a billy club.

The photo was shot by photographer Charles Moore on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford a few days before James Meredith's attempt to integrate the school.

The headline read: "Local Lawmen, Getting Ready to Block the Law," and the subjects appeared to be relishing what lay ahead, including an all-night riot in which two people would die and hundreds more would be injured.

How did those seven white Southerners become so full of hate? Hendrickson wondered. How did it all end for them, and was there no eventual shame? And what happened to their children, and their children's children?

Armed with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, Hendrickson spent almost seven years searching for answers.

Only two of the principals were still alive, both of whom he interviewed on numerous occasions, along with their progeny and the children of the other sheriffs in the photo.

His success in getting them to discuss the touchy subject of race attests to his reporting skills -- Hendrickson was a prize-winning feature writer for The Washington Post for more than 20 years -- and he was often invited to share meals with his subjects in their homes.

"I felt awkward about eating with people whom I was trying to plumb for secrets," he acknowledges, "but in the South it's so difficult to say no to these invitations."

He interviewed historians, journalists, social scientists and those on both sides of the civil rights movement.

He also talked several times to James Meredith himself, as well as several of Meredith's four children, one of whom graduated magna cum laude in economics from Harvard; he gathered material from numerous sources, including public libraries, courthouses and civil rights collections, and he boned up on such classic Southern literature as W.J. Cash's "The Mind of the South" and Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters."

The result is a rich, readable overview of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi and how it has affected life in the state today. A map in the book pinpoints the towns where the sheriffs in the infamous photo lived and worked, from Pascagoula in the south to Oxford in the north, plus other places where important events in the struggle occurred.

The photo of the seven sheriffs is on the book's cover. Billy Ferrell, the man with the club and the central figure in the picture, was one of the chief lawman in Natchez for many years and one of the two surviving sheriffs Hendrickson interviewed. The other was John Ed Cothran from Greenwood, who's on the far right of the photo with his back to the camera.

Hendrickson spent many hours talking to both, neither of whom admitted feeling any guilt about how black people were mistreated on their watch. It was only in interviewing and following the lives of their children and grandchildren that the author found any difference at all in racial attitudes.

"Nothing changes in Mississippi. And everything changes," writes Hendrickson, a California native who lives in Maryland and is the author of three previous books.

One of many fascinating stories he tells is about his visit in Natchez with E.L. McDaniel, former Grand Dragon of the United Klans of America. A man in his late '60s and in failing health, McDaniel was friendly but matter-of-fact: "No, I have no regrets about anything I did ... if I had to do everything again, I'd do exactly the same," he told Hendrickson. McDaniel's wife, Joan, was also a member of the Klan, had her own robes and marched in Klan parades, she proudly told Hendrickson.

The younger generation of Mississippians, however, seems to offer hope for the future. Consider Tommy Ferrell, son of the club-wielding Billy Ferrell in Charles Moore's photograph. Following in his father's footsteps, Tommy is now the sheriff of Natchez, but most people the author talked to on both sides of the color line consider him "a fair and straight lawman."

For one thing, the sheriff no longer allows his staff to use the word "nigger," he told Hendrickson. "It isn't right. We had to learn to change here in the South."

But change is slow in Mississippi, which the author makes all too clear. He draws few conclusions in this book, allowing readers to form their own opinions about a state he calls "a lush, blistered paradise and place of sorrows ... it's so puzzling that a land of such charm and physical beauty, a people of such natural grace and disposition to kindness could have so appalling a history."

As a white Mississippian who couldn't wait to escape from a place where Emmett Till was brutally murdered and black people were once considered less than human, I read this book with special interest. There's still much to lament in my home state, but "Sons of Mississippi" gives me hope that some things, at least, may have changed for the better.


Elizabeth Bennett, former book editor of The Houston Post, grew up near Hattiesburg, in southern Mississippi. She's now a freelance writer in Houston.

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