They were sheriffs, the seven white men who gathered on a September day in 1962. They were Southern law enforcers in an era when Southern law enforcers smoked and joked and wore their white shirts buttoned to the top and their ties knotted tightly even on hot days. They were immensely powerful: To be one of Mississippi’s 80-odd sheriffs in 1962 meant to have astonishingly unchecked authority for the duration of your job, which was sometimes lifelong. They were photographed together by Charles Moore, and the image ran in Life magazine. It’s a shot that is (or ought to be) infamous, not because of the seven men but because of its true focal point – the wooden baton in its center, the object with which, days later, these law enforcers imagined they could prevent the enrollment of James Meredith at the segregated university known as Ole Miss.
This picture of evil – a word that is not too strong for the hatred and stupidity and blindness it captures – is the centerpiece of Paul Hendrickson’s flawed, fascinating history Sons of Mississippi, a civil rights book about the villains whose very existence demanded the emergence of civil rights heroes we now honor. A tripartite structure reveals the book’s reach. First, Hendrickson identifies the seven men in Moore’s picture: who they were, how they used or abused their authority, how they changed – or refused to – in the years after 1962. The second section offers a genuinely tragic account of Meredith himself, who broke barriers at Ole Miss and then went on to work for Jesse Helms, endorse former Klansman David Duke for elective office, and seethe against the entire civil rights movement; Hendrickson wonders openly if he is sane. The final section turns to the sheriffs’ legacy via their progeny – sons and grandsons, most of whom still live in what’s now called the New South (a term the author clearly feels is an overstatement) and many of whom work in law enforcement.
As a 23-year veteran of the Washington Post, Hendrickson knows when he’s onto something, and in ”Sons of Mississippi,” he’s onto something great. What makes his book such a valuable addition to the undeniably groaning shelf of eyes-on-the-prize histories isn’t just the focus on the bad guys, but his rigorous refusal to frame his work as a history at all. To Hendrickson, 1962 Mississippi isn’t a museum relic to be dusted off and examined for its quaintness: It’s recent, relevant, and vitally connected to ”the illusion of racial heterogeneity” in the contemporary Mississippi of, to use but one thunderous example, Trent Lott. The author sees history as news, and finds the news in history. Through interviews, archival work, and scrupulous study of recently declassified documents, Hendrickson builds a furious case that racism was not personal predilection but a policy of apartheid that Southern statehouses fiercely embraced and the feds treated with cynicism and manipulation.
More’s the pity, then, that the author trips over his own ambitions so often. ”Sons of Mississippi” is stentorian when it should be hushed, and enraged when it should be observant. Hendrickson clearly isn’t from the less-is-more school of journalism, but you may wish he’d at least taken a couple of classes there. ”Dangerous,” ”hypocritical,” ”virulent,” and ”uncouth” are some of the words he applies to the sheriffs in just a few pages. He takes jarring pleasure in their physical ugliness and describes their diseases and demises with overenthusiastic vigor. ”There is no…redemptive story” at all behind the photograph, he writes, which is fair enough. But when he tries to find the sexual tension of a rape-driven lynch mob in the photo, or imagines his own father’s face among the men, he’s pushing too hard.
As a writer, Hendrickson strains for poetry when we want unadorned prose, and he can’t resist advertising his own big moments. Interviewing a white librarian who, decades earlier, had stood up to ”segs” – the alarmingly casual term for segregationists – he asks the genteel 83-year-old if she was scared. ”A little,” she replies. ”But I knew it was right.” ”She didn’t put it this way, but I think [she] was trying to say that in every dark there are particles of light,” adds the author. Actually, no: She seems to have said exactly what she was trying to say, and said it better. Nobody in ”Sons of Mississippi” needs this kind of florid interpretive gloss. Their very own words are enough to explain, hang, or redeem them.