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Mississippi Learning

Author exhausts a picture's possibilities

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If a picture is in fact worth a thousand words, then what's the value of thousands of words devoted to a single picture?

Veteran Washington Post reporter Paul Hendrickson attempts to find out in his divinely chaotic reconnaissance of post-segregation Mississippi. The photo that inspired this seven-year effort depicts seven Mississippi sheriffs assembled in Oxford in 1962 to defend the University of Mississippi from the prospect of its first black student, James Meredith.

It's easy to understand how Hendrickson became smitten with the image. The cocksure smugness of these defenders of American apartheid is as menacing as it is sadly ironic. In this postmodern age, one could imagine the image being appropriated to sell vodka: Absolut Cracker the caption might read.

By using the seven sheriffs and their progeny as a lens, Hendrickson attempts to answer his own question: Where did the hatred and the sorrow go that flowed out of this moment?

Mississippi made its fame as the civil rights movement's killing fields in 1955, when 15-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for whistling at a white woman. His killers were promptly acquitted by an all-white jury. It was the scene of other notorious slayings like that of NAACP attorney Medgar Evers and SNCC activists Mickey Schwerner, James Cheney and Andrew Goodman during 1964's Freedom Summer.

More recently, the state has served as fodder for Hollywood's efforts to peddle the mythology that FBI agents (Mississippi Burning) and white liberal lawyers (Ghosts of Mississippi) were the true heroes of the era.

Thankfully, Hendrickson forgoes any sermonizing. Instead he bounces between a social history of Mississippi to profiles of the seven sheriffs and their descendants. Perhaps infected by the ethos of hot meandering Southern afternoons, he's in no particular hurry to tell this story. Instead, he lets it unfold through divergent profiles, all emanating from photographer Charles Moore's snapshot.

When Hendrickson started his research, only two of the sheriffs were still alive: Natchez's Billy Ferrell, and Greenwood's former sheriff, John Cothran. One finds signs of genuine redemption among the segregationist old guard, as well as a clinging to neo-Confederate sophistry. More than one sheriff still maintained that it was the deployment of National Guard troops in Mississippi (to defend Meredith from vigilantes) and not the prospect of integration that spawned the violence of that era.

The Mississippi Hendrickson portrays is neither the racist boys club of the liberal imagination, nor anyone's vision of racial harmony. What shines most in Sons are the intimate reflections of the sheriffs' progeny. The sadness of that moment is something they inherited. Most notable is the story of the grandson of Billy Ferrell who works as a border guard in El Paso, Texas and can scarcely speak of his father or grandfather without tears. And there's the son of John Cothran whose life is a string of failed marriages and retail jobs.

The ghost of William Faulkner haunts these pages and at times the prose unduly reeks of Mississippi's most famous literary son. The author's attempt at Southern gothic journalism often imposes a false gravitas on his subjects and subject matter, but it's a forgivable blemish in a complex portrait of a state, and a nation, still in the throes of a bumpy, uncharted road to racial reconciliation.

-- John Dicker

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