News & Politics

Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past

This civil-rights memoir, “with its acknowledgment of humanity in even the most misguided characters, is well worth reading.”

 “In Mississippi,” Eubanks writes, “. . . the ghosts of the past live on in the present.” Ever Is a Long Time is his journey into the Mississippi of his childhood—a Mississippi haunted by the ghosts of bigotry and bloodshed.

 The light-skinned grandson of a white man, Eubanks—director of publishing at the Library of Congress—“lived a dignified life in an undignified system of racial segregation.” It wasn’t until he discovered his parents’ names in the files of the Sovereignty Commission, a segregationist spy network chaired by the governor, that Eubanks returned to Mississippi to plumb his own past, romanticized by memory’s artful omissions.

 In the commission files, Eubanks unearths reminders of his experiences in a segregationist era: of Mount Olive School, where he was “marooned” in an all-white classroom; of college at Ole Miss, where he was one of few blacks paired with a white roommate; of James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and other pillars of the civil-rights movement whose lives (and deaths) Eubanks understood only abstractly as a boy.

 The files also suggest new directions for his journey. In the three most powerful chapters, Eubanks interviews Horace Harned, an “unreconstructed racial firebrand”; Denson Lott, a former Klansman and Sovereignty Commission informant; and Ed King, a white civil-rights activist. Here, the ghosts of a dark history become mere structural backdrops for the memoir’s central lesson: “. . . the powers of justice and redemption are harder at work [in] Mississippi than these forces of the past. I know it, I feel it, I see it.”

 Low points are the memoir’s beginning—an excruciatingly slow play-by-play of Eubanks’s boyhood—and end, where he arrives at the lame conclusion that “Mississippi is a very cool place.” But although the occasional touching moment is spoiled by the author’s lumbering style, the memoir, with its acknowledgment of humanity in even the most misguided characters, is well worth reading.

W. Ralph Eubanks

Basic Books