One day in 1995, journalist Paul Hendrickson, then a reporter for the Washington Post, found himself standing in Black Oak Books in Berkeley, California, where he was thumbing through a volume called Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore. One particular photograph grabbed Hendrickson's attention, filling him with a sense of history, awe and, ultimately, an absorbing curiosity that would drive him to spend nearly seven years researching his latest book, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy.
Technically, Moore's candid black-and-white photo is fairly unremarkable. But its subjects seven Mississippi sheriffs gathered on the campus of Ole Miss on Sept. 27, 1962, on the eve of the federally enforced enrollment of the school's first African-American student, James Meredith evoked in Hendrickson a deep desire to investigate their lives and to re-examine a tumultuous era in a region infamous for its segregation and bigotry.
The seven men were the leading state law officers of their time. In the photo, they are gathered together affably, chortling amongst themselves, cigarettes clenched between their teeth, their eyes focused on Billy Ferrell in the center, who appears to be demonstrating the proper way to swing a riot club. Ostensibly, the men had arrived in Oxford to assist in preventing Meredith from entering the university.
"The picture stopped me in my tracks," says Hendrickson, speaking from Philadelphia, where he now teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. "These men are not terrifying. They're not dressed as Klansmen. Take away the bat and the malevolent grins, and these are men who have risen above their families' blue-collar factory backgrounds."Hendrickson, born in California and raised in Illinois, had also spent some time as a young man in the late 1950s and '60s in Alabama, where he was studying at a seminary and considering a vocation to the priesthood. "I saw segregation. I saw apartheid. That never left me."Without question, the faces of the men in Moore's photograph transmit an eerie energy, conjuring fearful notions of white supremacist, redneck-style law enforcement in the Deep South, with all its attendant paranoia, provincialism and brutality. The photo became the springboard not only for Hendrickson's powerful history of civil rights but also for his investigation into what happened to these archetypal Southern good ol' boys and their families. So the author went to Mississippi.
"No sense going to the South if you don't go to Mississippi," says Hendrickson. "I get excited about Mississippi the grace, the manners, the food, the beauty of the landscape. It gave us both Faulkner and appalling racism. It is the most literate and the most illiterate state."Hendrickson followed the small-town trails of his subjects, most of whom were dead. He interviewed contemporaries and family members. He combed through newspaper archives and government reports. On a firsthand basis, he was able to speak to Ferrell (who has since died) and John Ed Cothran, who as a deputy sheriff played a role in the case of the 1955 murder of 14-year-old black Emmett Till, a signature event in the history of the civil rights movement.
As it turns out, being a sheriff was only a sometime thing for most of the seven. They moved on to other businesses, married and remarried, battled alcoholism, died young or from debilitating cancers in short, lived apparently unremarkable lives. All of them, however, were presumed to have had some involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, though gathering direct evidence often proved elusive.
"You humanize each individual life," says Hendrickson, "and each seems to be a mixture of all of our own lives. Underneath the bad beliefs, there's a kind of ordinary normalcy."Besides focusing on the sheriffs and their families, Hendrickson also offers profiles of photographer Moore (now almost 70 and living in northwest Alabama) and James Meredith (also near 70, living in Jackson).
And what of the Mississippi legacy? Is it hopeless? Is the bigotry still there? Hendrickson speaks with cautious optimism. "What I found are blades of hope. I found changes, but they are like tender shoots of grass in the spring susceptive to quick trampling or reversal."Previously a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Hendrickson should be headed for more acclaim with this amazing book, which is characterized by historical scope, sociocultural depth, journalistic integrity and an astonishing ability to reveal universal truths via very particular people and events.