Medgar Evers, Sovereignty Commission, Byron De La Beckwith, Ole Miss all conjure up images of Mississippi and its pivotal role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Two new books one by a black man and another by a white woman offer fascinating glimpses into the social structure of Mississippi at a time when it was at the center of historic change.
W. Ralph Eubanks, publishing director at the Library of Congress, discovered in 1998 that his parents' names had been on a watch list developed by the infamous Sovereignty Commission, established by the Mississippi legislature in the 1950s as a means to preserve segregation. Intrigued, Eubanks began to explore how his parents were placed on the list. His search eventually led him to retrace his Mississippi childhood, a process described in the compelling new book, Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi's Dark Past (Basic, $26, 256 pages, ISBN 0738205702). A combination of memoir and political history, Eubanks' book is by turns a charming remembrance of a rural boyhood and a chilling reminder of racism's legacy.
Eubanks' personal narrative about growing up in the segregated South turns conventional perception on its head. He actually had, to a large degree, an idyllic childhood on a farm outside Mount Olive, Mississippi. His sheltered world was shattered only when his class became the first to integrate the local school.
The search for the truth about his parents (placed on the watch list only because they were educated black people) leads Eubanks to his own reconciliation with the world he left behind a quarter of century before. Eventually, he answers his children's questions about Mississippi by taking a family trip to the state and reconnecting them to the rural roots that are an integral part of his character.
While Eubanks was reading Faulkner, Peggy Morgan was living a Faulkner novel. Writer Carolyn Haines chronicles this Mississippi woman's life in My Mother's Witness: The Peggy Morgan Story. Like Ever Is a Long Time, this is a book about the search for truth and the courage to confront it. Poor, white and uneducated, Morgan grew up in a large family dominated by an abusive, alcoholic father. In the social strata of the old South, only blacks were lower than Morgan's family. Haines, a former journalist who has written numerous novels, portrays Morgan's struggles to overcome the abuse that followed her from childhood into her own marriage with Lloyd Morgan, which eventually ended in abandonment and disaster.
Morgan and her mother each held a secret related to the civil rights struggle. According to Morgan, her mother died carrying the knowledge of who killed Emmett Till, a young black man from Chicago who was lynched in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman. Morgan herself had information about the murder of Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader who was shot to death in his own driveway. It took more than 30 years for her to summon the courage to testify against Byron De La Beckwith, who was finally convicted of Evers' murder in 1994.
Haines' crisp, readable account is an inspiring look at one woman's effort to conquer the pain and hatred that marked her youth. Read together, these two books provide a rich context for understanding the segregated South and the power that race held in creating its structure. J. Campbell Green is a Nashville businessman.