On Thursday afternoon, September 27, 1962, six sheriffs and one deputy from across the state of Mississippi gathered on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Three days later, when James Meredith’s arrival to register as the university’s first African American student sparked a riot that left two dead and hundreds injured, most of these peace officers had departed. On the eve of that violence, though, these seven men met under spreading trees on the Oxford campus, there to support Mississippi governor Ross Barnett’s stated insistence that Meredith would never be allowed to register as a student.
Because they arrived and departed from Oxford prior to one of the Civil Rights era’s main events, history might not have noticed them but for the camera of Charles Moore. Moore photographed these sheriffs, circled around one of their number who gripped a billy club with pleasure, presumably in anticipation of using it to defend segregation in Mississippi. Life magazine originally published the photograph in 1962. Four decades later, former Washington Post journalist Paul Hendrickson discovered the photograph, and this discovery inspired Sons of Mississippi, the author’s attempt to understand the persistence of racism and its possible redemption.
Sons of Mississippi is historical journalism after the pattern of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), about Alabama sharecroppers. Hendrickson, in fact, carried a copy of Agee’s book on at least one of his visits to Mississippi, and the author clearly seems to have attempted a work of investigative journalism marked by a similar lyricism, introspection, and marriage of word and image. Though history will not likely rank Hendrickson’s effort alongside Agee’s, Sons of Mississippi is nevertheless an important book, especially for those who seek to understand the wounds that racism continues to inflict upon some Americans and the scars that it has embedded in the American consciousness.
Sons of Mississippi examines first the seven sheriffs in Moore’s photograph, “seven faces of Deep South apartheid.” In asking how they became racists—the author is everywhere blunt with his moral judgments—Hendrickson emphasizes their representativeness of a racist southern culture. The violence they contemplated drew its energy from an elaborate web of social connections not visible in Moore’s photograph, but “off the page, out of sight, past the borders.” The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission and the Ku Klux Klan thus feature prominently in the book, as the author investigates—and in some cases demonstrates—connections between these segregationist organizations and the men in the Life photograph.
In the years that followed the photographed moment, Hendrickson looks for some redemptive story in the lives of the seven sheriffs. Did remorse ever seize their consciences? Did regret ever make them wish to rewrite the history into which they had been so notoriously written by the lens on Moore’s camera? No, the author concludes. Only two of the lawmen, Billy Ferrell and John Ed Cothran, were alive when Hendrickson began serious work on the book in 1997. Ferrell stands in the center of the photograph, with the billy club in his hands, and accounts of him and his children and grandchildren anchor the book. The author found no redemptive narrative in his interviews with the old sheriff, who was still impatient with talk about “civil rights crap,” still convinced that American morals disintegrated as a result of desegregation, because “black people as a whole don’t have the same morals as white people.”
Cothran fares better in the book, but only by a little. His back is turned to the camera in the photograph, and Hendrickson takes this posture as a metaphor for the man’s life as a segregationist who had never precisely been “a true hating seg.” According to...
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