News & Politics

Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

A civil-rights story written “with the precision and grace of someone who knows how to make every word count.

The civil-rights struggles of the 1960s—“Deep South apartheid,” in Paul Hendrickson’s words—have been preserved in many photographs. One lesser-known shot, published in Life, caught Hendrickson’s attention eight years ago. Taken moments before the violent integration of the University of Mississippi at Oxford, it shows six sheriffs gathered around a seventh, who is demonstrating the proper use of a billy club. The book, Hendrickson writes, is about “what came down from those seven Mississippi faces.”

Hendrickson—a former Washington Post writer now teaching at the University of Pennsylvania—illuminates the complexities of men who have been dismissed as one-dimensional bigots. One of them, John Cothran, was raised in a family whose “demarcation line for formal learning” was tenth grade. Despite four marriages, Cothran speaks most affectionately of “Fred,” a houseplant. “John married his fourth wife,” Hendrickson writes, “and every time they fought, Fred seemed to wilt, and then they’d make up, and he’d get good again. . . . After the divorce, he asked for custody of Fred. He’s been nursing him back ever since.”

At another sheriff’s home, the author finds the photo laminated on a piece of plywood: “I was pretty certain it had been brought out of the basement or a back closet and dusted off. Still, somebody had once cut the photo from a magazine and made it suitable for hanging.”

While impressively researched, the book’s greatest strength is in the chapter forewords containing Hendrickson’s poignant reflections. “Yes, in every dark there are particles of light,” he says in one. “It’s so puzzling that a land of such charm and physical beauty, a people of such natural grace and disposition to kindness, could have so appalling a history.”

Hendrickson writes of his account: “None of this will ‘explain’ seven figures in a rectangle, sentient beings and sons of Mississippi who lived and strutted and died, but who’ve come together from different parts of the state, standing fearless in these refracted slivers of sunshine, to make their unwitting picture, to enjoy their group joke, to bar a black man from trying to improve himself.”

The author found the photograph to be worth far more than the proverbial thousand words, yet he writes with the precision and grace of someone who knows how to make each word count.

Paul Hendrickson