It’s tempting to dehumanize those who stood in the way of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. After all, they were racist, angry and tried to prevent black Americans from living the life to which they were entitled. But Paul Hendrickson’s Sons of Mississippi accomplishes the complicated task of showing that these racists aren’t just defined by their acts of racism. Some committed many other transgressions in their lives, while others raised families, ran businesses and even, under some circumstances, could be kind and compassionate.
Hendrickson takes as his jumping-off point a photo that ran in Life magazine in 1962 of seven white lawmen in Mississippi. The men – six sheriffs and a deputy sheriff – were photographed on the campus of the University of Mississippi shortly after James Meredith, a black man, decided to attend the university, thus racially integrating it.
In the picture, one of the men, Sheriff William T. (Billy) Ferrell, holds a billy club tightly in his hands – as if ready to strike – while grinning and gripping a cigarette between his teeth. The men around him watch, some grinning, one laughing, one tearing off strips of gauze. The photo was snapped not long before riots erupted on the campus, though, despite their posing, many claim that the men in the picture were not directly involved in the unrest.
No matter. The photo is a grim, unsettling reminder of a trying time. But Hendrickson isn’t willing to just see it as a one-dimensional image of racism. In Sons of Mississippi, Hendrickson tracks down the friends and descendants of the men in the photo and hears stories about these men and how their actions influenced those around them. He even finds the two surviving men in the photo – Ferrell, who died shortly after the interview, and John Ed Cothran. But their sections of the story are less interesting. Cothran is a racist, albeit not a violent one, and probably feels some degree of remorse for the photo. Ferrell, though he tries to explain away his aggressive pose, is more defensive and refers to race relations as “civil rights crap.”
Other interviews reveal that James Wesley Garrison, the lone deputy sheriff in the photo, went on to manage a Long John Silver's and showed a buried, paternal side to many of his employees (all of whom were white – with the exception of one short-lived black employee).
Hendrickson also talks to Meredith, who led a controversial life himself, following up his historic integration with a stint working for conservative Senator Jesse Helms and supporting ill-advised presidential candidate David Duke, whose Ku Klux Klan ties generated more press than any campaign promises.
But the most interesting stories in the book come from the descendants of the men involved in that historic photo. In particular, Ferrell’s grandson, Ty, turned out to be a pensive, sensitive soul who works for the New Mexican border control. Some of the best passages contain Ty’s discussion of how he likes his job but sympathizes with the Mexican immigrants seeking a better life. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that his grandfather probably lacked this kind of perspective. Ty Ferrell is an interesting character because, though he professes to be against affirmative action and admits to occasionally lapsing into racial slurs when he gets around his more uncouth relatives, he seems willing to escape his legacy. So, too, is James Meredith’s son, Joe, who, though proud of his father’s part in the civil rights movement, is as confused by the man’s actions later in life as anyone else.
Sons of Mississippi is a compelling, thought-provoking book that explores race relations in way that shows us that all participants in this struggle were human. It’s a daring, challenging tale that offers no easy answers for anyone.