Where did our hate go?
If the cliché is true, and a picture is, in fact, worth a thousand words, then what’s the value of thousands of words devoted to a single picture?
Veteran Washington Post reporter Paul Hendrickson attempts to find out in his divinely chaotic reconnaissance of post-segregation Mississippi. The picture that inspired this effort easily should be as famous as such defining civil-rights images as the silhouetted Selma-to-Montgomery marchers or the beleaguered Woolworth lunch-counter demonstrators.
Shot in 1962, the photo features seven Mississippi sheriffs assembled in Oxford to defend the University of Mississippi from its first black student, James Meredith. It’s easy to understand how Hendrickson became smitten with the image. The cocksure smugness of these stalwart defenders of American apartheid is as menacing as the men are tragic.
By using the lives of the seven photographed sheriffs and their progeny as a lens, Hendrickson attempts to answer his own question: Where did the hatred and the sorrow that flowed out of this moment go?
Mississippi made its fame as the killing fields of the civil-rights struggle before Rosa Parks stayed seated in Montgomery. In 1955, 15-year-old Emmett Till was murdered there for whistling at a white woman. His killers promptly were acquitted by an all-white jury. Mississippi is also the scene of other high-profile racist slayings, such as that of NAACP attorney Medgar Evers. More recently, the state has served as fodder for Hollywood’s efforts to peddle the mythology that white FBI agents (Mississippi Burning) and liberal white lawyers (Ghosts of Mississippi) were the heroes of that epoch.
Thankfully, Hendrickson forgoes simplistic sermonizing. Instead, he bounces—sometimes without much grace—between a straight-up social history of Mississippi and profiles of the seven sheriffs and their progeny.
Through declassified documents, Hendrickson exposes the statewide network of lawmakers and politically powerful operatives that monitored the activities of civil-rights activists. And, through the phone conversations of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and then Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, he recreates the tense standoff between a segregationist governor and a presidential administration sworn to uphold the Supreme Court ruling that Meredith be admitted to Ole Miss.
When Hendrickson started his research, only two of the sheriffs were still alive: Natchez’s Billy Ferrell and Greenwood’s former sheriff, John Cothran. There’s a sad irony to these men, reflecting on a time 40 years ago when a 100-year-old social order imploded on their watch. The Mississippi Hendrickson reveals is neither the racist boys club of the liberal imagination nor anyone’s idea of racial harmony. There are still all-white country clubs, but there’s also an African-American student-body president at the University of Mississippi.
What shines most in Sons are the portraits of the sheriffs’ progeny. The sadness of the 40-year-old moment is clearly something they have inherited. Particularly memorable is Ferrell’s grandson, who works as a border guard in El Paso, Texas, and scarcely can speak of his father or grandfather without tears. And yet he delights at the prospect of going home to Mississippi and ascending the family mantle of sheriffdom.
The ghost of William Faulkner haunts these pages, and at times, the prose unduly reeks of Mississippi’s most famous literary son. The author’s attempt at Southern gothic journalism often imposes a false gravitas on his subject matter, but it’s a forgivable blemish in a complex and often-eloquent portrait of a state and a nation still on an uncharted road to racial reconciliation.