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Archived Reviews

Southern Discomfort

Sons of Mississippi A Story of Race and its Legacy, by Paul Hendrickson; Alfred A. Knopf, $26, ?? pages (galley).

Publication date: MARCH 24, 2003

We are all familiar with the classic typecast of the Southern County Sheriff, his clownish deputy in tow: whether it be “The Andy Griffith Show’s” “Andy Taylor” and “Barney Fife,” or Jackie Gleason’s “Buford T. Justice” and nepotistic “Sonny Boy” in the film “Cannonball Run.” This character is seen nowadays as a “Dukes of Hazzard” clown –- subliterate and even stupid, but essentially harmless. Paul Hendrickson’s “Sons of Mississippi” is a chilling reminder that there was a time in America’s very recent past that there was nothing at all “charming” about the venerable stereotype.

The core of this story is a famous photo in LIFE Magazine, taken during the 1962 Federal integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith, a young, black Air Force Veteran with tremendous courage and Robert F. Kennedy’s federal troops backing him. The photo is not of Meredith, however. It shows the head of the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association, Billy Ferrell of Natchez, swinging a billy club like a baseball bat while six other county sheriffs look on. The clear implication of the photo, of course, is that this is what they’re going to greet that “uppity” Meredith with if he shows up at Ole Miss.

In many ways, Hendrickson has really done something extraordinary here. The former WASHINGTON POST feature writer tracked down the seven sheriffs in that photograph, and follows their lives (and, by implication, the life of Mississippi) since that fateful moment. He follows the lives of their children, and their children’s children to the present date, where, in September of 2002, a Civil Rights memorial was unveiled at Ole Miss, honoring, in part, Meredith’s astonishing feat of courage.

Hendrickson wears out a lot of shoe leather doing his homework. He visits retirees over spans of months and years, winning their trust. He uncovers state and federal documents. He haunts libraries.

He tells of drunken, loutish Sheriff Grimsley, of fearful Deputy Big Smitty; of John Ed Cothran, the Sheriff caught in the middle, of three generations of Ferrell lawmen (Billy’s son, Tommy, inherits his father’s office, and was installed in 2002 as President of the National Sheriff’s Association), and the rest of the seven in that LIFE photograph. He reminds us of the almost unbounded power of the Mississippi sheriff of the day, and of the Sovereignty Committee, the taxpayer-financed arm of Mississippi state government that kept surveillance on potential NAACP “agitators” and other “subversives.”

He tells the story of the photographer who took the picture, and of James Meredith himself, who turns out to be an exceedingly problematic “hero” – a man who, in recent years, has been seen endorsing ex-Klan Wizard David Duke for President and working for Senator Jesse Helms.

But there is a great problem with the book: having accepted the adroit framing device of letting the stories flow from the LIFE photograph, the narrative begins to splinter in ever-greater confusion as the author is increasingly derailed by his own literary device.

There are too many changes of voice, and for no compelling reason: from highfalutin’ academic prose to pseudo-psychoanalysis to mimicry of the “cracker” argot of deep Mississippi. Tense and time shift, sometimes for no apparent reason, a problem the author acknowledges at one point, when he says: “Right now – not the “now” of 1962 in this sun-splashed leafiness, but the now of real time as you’re reading this and gazing in ...” [[p. 79, pls. Check against final]].

By the middle of the book, Hendrickson has thrown most of the tricksy devices away and he writes with an compelling straightforwardness.

But the damage is done. The lack of linearity caused by his framing device finally seems to confuse even the author. Striving for novelistic detail in fleshing out his characters, Hendrickson loses control of his story, and the question of the legacy of those 1962 riots, in which two died, devolves into a narrative about families. We care about these families as real people, watch their all-too-normal conflicts and tensions, but the whole question of the legacy of racism in Mississippi finally gets lost along the way.

There is a great and timely book in Mr. Hendrickson’s meticulous research, but this isn’t it. That book is yet to be written.