Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sons of Mississippi, Paul Hendrickson

"This photograph was taken in late September 1962, seven years after the killing of Emmett Till. The photograph, which isn't an icon image of the sixties—but should be—was recorded a few days before an all-night riot in Mississippi in which two died and hundreds were injured. It was made by an uncommonly brave and gifted white freelance photographer from Alabama named Charles Moore, on a Thursday afternoon, in a grove of elms and oaks and fine old catalpa trees, at Oxford, Mississippi, on the campus of a place known lovingly as Ole Miss. A week later this document was published in a double-truck spread in Life magazine with this small headline down in the left-hand corner: 'Local lawmen, getting ready to block the law.' There were a lot of other pictures in the story, but this was the one that stole your eyes...

Paul Hendrickson

"...Even now, after years of looking at it, examining it, carrying it, I can't precisely say what it was about the image that so took hold of me. It had an overwhelming storytelling clarity—and simultaneous confusion. It was only much later, with the research and reporting and interviews unfolding before me, that I found a certain corroboration for all I must have been imagining the first time I came across it."

—from Sons of Mississippi by Paul Hendrickson

From the April 2003 Washington Monthly, "Rising Sons: A review of Paul Hendrickson's Sons of Mississippi," by Wen Stephenson: On Sept. 27, 1962, in Oxford, Miss., among the elms and oaks and catalpa trees on the campus of Ole Miss, a gifted young freelancer snapped a photograph for Life magazine of seven Mississippi sheriffs having too good a time. It's not an icon of the 1960s, but it should be, says Paul Hendrickson. They're standing, "these seven faces of Deep South apartheid," around the hood of a squad car, and the handsome one in the middle--head of the state sheriffs' association, cigarette between his grinning teeth--is taking a practice swing with a billy club to the amusement and grim appreciation of his colleagues. It was three days before James Meredith would become the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi (accompanied by more than 500 federal marshals and several thousand U.S. troops), and these sheriffs, in their white shirts and dark ties, had come from all over the state to help keep their fellow Mississippian from setting foot on the sacred campus.
Paul Hendrickson

For Hendrickson, a former Washington Post reporter who was born in California but raised partly in the Deep South, that photograph contains an essential underlying story of the Battle of Oxford and the larger civil rights struggle, a story of race and its legacy that holds the key to much of the past 40 years. In Sons of Mississippi, Hendrickson takes a rare approach to this subject, focusing on the white supremacists themselves, rather than the familiar, and safer, heroic narrative of the people who rose up to defeat them. His driving impulse is to get beneath the surface and beyond the frame of that photograph in order to see these seven Southerners, and their children and grandchildren after them, as complex individuals rather than two-dimensional caricatures. He knows that racism--even in a time and place as benighted as Mississippi in 1962--is never monolithic, and is careful to highlight the nuances of racial feeling along a spectrum that runs from virulent bigotry to complacent (and complicit) passivity. He knows that the only way to understand the inhumanity in that photograph is to make the men who populate it human.
1962 Ole Miss University campus riot.

Two of those men were still alive when Hendrickson started the project; all of them are well remembered by family, friends, and colleagues. One of the deceased, the former sheriff of Pascagoula--alcoholic, viciously bigoted, and beloved of his men--has an FBI file on him big enough, yet maddeningly inconclusive enough (full of "redactions" pointing all the way to J. Edgar Hoover) to be the stuff of legend. For more than one of them, Hendrickson unearths evidence of Klan and Klan-related activities, though he's unable to prove anything, and none can be linked directly to any civil-rights crime.

The University of Mississippi, Oxford 1962.

But as Hendrickson states at the outset, his book isn't really about the men in the photograph. "Instead," he writes, "it's about what's deeply connected but is off the page, out of sight, past the borders. It's about what has come down from this photograph." And so the portraits of those men are followed by longer, more intimate profiles of some of the descendants, those he calls "the inheritors," in whose stories he finds "some modest surprises and small redemptions and blades of latter-day racial hope."

U.S. Border Control

There's Sheriff Tommy Ferrell, who succeeded his father as sheriff of Natchez (Adams County), keeps a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest--co-founder of the KKK--on his office wall, and has nonetheless risen to national prominence in his determination to modernize the image of Mississippi law enforcement. (And whose proud political demeanor conceals an edge of defensiveness about his father's role in the 1960s.) There's Tommy's son Ty Ferrell, a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Santa Teresa, N.M.--compassionate, painfully self-conscious, prone to tears--who seems to carry around with him the entire burden of the family's racial past. And there's John Cothran--grandson and namesake of Sheriff John Ed Cothran of infamous Greenwood (Leflore County) in the Delta--a "working stiff" whose good heart and bad temper have left him with four broken marriages, who works as a floor manager at Home Depot and a second job stocking shelves at the Kroger supermarket to pay child support for the kids he loves, and whose ambition is a double-wide trailer in an all-white development outside Senatobia. (And yet whose humanity toward, and willingness to stand up for, his black co-workers and friends give him a shot at redemption that is neither simple nor sentimental.)

Ole Miss was the scene of rioting that spilled over into the streets of Oxford, Mississippi (1962)
Hendrickson succeeds, movingly and compellingly, in these portraits of contemporary Southerners. But his feel for the deeper Southern past, and for the broader context of Southern politics, is less sophisticated and less satisfying. That is to say, Hendrickson gives us vivid pictures of who the men in that photograph were in 1962, and of what they passed on to their descendants, but he makes almost no effort to explain how they got that way--almost forgetting, it seems, that these men themselves were descendants, inheritors of the forces that shaped their South. Despite a central chapter in which he weaves a kind of historical essay on the events surrounding the Battle of Oxford and its aftermath, I found myself searching for some analysis of the social and political dynamics of race and class that run as an inescapable current through Southern history.
Ole Miss 1962

How, for example, did the poor and working-class backgrounds of these men, their lack of education, and their place within the stratified society of white Mississippi, affect their racial fear? How did white supremacism, and the populist politics of racial solidarity, offer them a kind of perverse security within that world? How did the tangled history of race and class in the Jim Crow South set the social boundaries and norms of behavior in their time and place? Hendrickson hints elusively at such questions, but fails to confront them. (source: Wen Stephenson, Washington Monthly)

click here to watch Paul Hendrickson on C-Span's Book TV


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