Racism’s Photographic Trace: Eyeing Hate, Mississippi-Style

Sons of Mississippi , by Paul Hendrickson. Alfred A. Knopf, 343 pages, $26 .

Forget what you’ve read about the New South, that mythological region of racial and economic comity. To read Paul Hendrickson’s remarkable Sons of Mississippi is to encounter a modern-day South rife with vexing contradictions and haunted by the ghosts of Jim Crow.

Mr. Hendrickson, a former reporter for The Washington Post , pivots his book’s wide-ranging, gripping narrative around a single 1962 Life magazine photograph that crystallizes the queasy, virulent hatred of white Southerners at the dawn of the civil-rights era. In it, seven men are prepping for a healthy round of racial thuggery. The Brylcreem figure in the center of the photograph, a cigarette clamped between his teeth, is gleefully grasping a billy club as if weighing its capacity for physical harm. The man to the right of him, also dangling a smoke from his lips, is wrapping what looks like gauze around his right wrist, like a boxer getting ready to rumble. A few others are standing around laughing, or grimly staring off-camera into the middle distance.

These men are in fact sheriffs, who have come together under the catalpa trees at the University of Mississippi on Sept. 27, 1962, to prevent black student James Meredith from enrolling and besmirching the state’s salient symbol of white entitlement. They have gathered, Mr. Hendrickson writes in the book’s prologue, “these seven faces of Deep South apartheid, along with a swelling mob of others … along with their pridefulness and paranoia and potentially lethal rages, to do what they could to keep another American and fellow Mississippian, a black man, from forcibly integrating … the halls and grounds of their sacrosanct state university.”

The picture, taken seven years after Emmett Till was murdered and dumped in the Tallahatchie River for whistling at a white woman, becomes Mr. Hendrickson’s Baedeker guide to Mississippi’s lingering legacy of racial intolerance. “How,” the author writes, “did a gene of intolerance and racial fear mutate as it passed sinuously through time and family bloodstreams?” In tracing the lives of the seven men in the photograph, the lives of their children and other lives they touched, Sons of Mississippi offers a moving and tragic portrait of collective guilt-without moral reckoning.

Mr. Hendrickson is that rarity, a meticulous reporter and nuanced storyteller. Sons of Mississippi isn’t looking to settle old scores or draw easy conclusions. Instead, Mr. Hendrickson subordinates the social critic in favor of the cultural anthropologist: His exhaustive field work traces an inexplicable animosity across four generations and complex cultural attitudes toward race.

The book’s first chapter is about the man in the center of the picture, William T. (Billy) Ferrell, sheriff of Natchez, Miss., during the ugly apex of the civil-rights struggle, a violent roughneck who may or may not have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Mr. Hendrickson visits Ferrell a year before his death in 1997, and finds an infirm retiree struggling to tamp down the ignoble resentments that made him one of the most vicious racist cops of his era. “When the words ‘Robert F. Kennedy’ arose, Billy said … ‘-I couldn’t stand that little snivelly-nosed sonofabitch.’ He didn’t like either Kennedy, but the younger brother, the attorney general, had always ticked him off royal. Bobby was a pissant feather-weight. And then he quickly apologized for saying these things. He apologized almost in a formally comic way.” This is the crooked face of Southern redemption, a reluctant atonement for past sins, and Mr. Hendrickson encounters it time and again during his travels.

As he carefully pieces together the lives of the other sheriffs both living and deceased, he encounters a curious disconnect between perception and reality. This is the South of masks and subterfuge, and many layers of complexity. James Grimsley, the man with the pugilist pose, worked as a manager of a Long John Silver’s franchise during the final years of his life, employing both black and white workers who speak of him as compassionate and kind. John Ed Cothran is another morally ambivalent case. The former sheriff of Greenwood, “one of the scariest and most hate-filled and race-contested sixties’ Mississippi towns,” Mr. Cothran also helped arrest Emmett Till’s killers and testified against them. Mr. Cothran, like the others in the photo, was an informant for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a shadowy Mississippi organization whose mandate was to spy and inform on civil rights groups like SNCC and NAACP. The kind old men Mr. Hendrickson interviews were once the civic leaders of Southern racial oppression.

The most curious case of all is James Meredith, the man who ran a gauntlet of malice to integrate Ole Miss. Mr. Hendrickson, who devotes the middle section of the book to Mr. Meredith, has created a definitive portrait of this maddeningly inscrutable civil-rights icon. The sheer cognitive dissonance of the man’s life is enough to tie any biographer in knots. How does one reconcile Mr. Meredith’s bravery in the face of state-sponsored bigotry with his decision to work for Jesse Helms or campaign on behalf of David Duke’s Presidential bid? As a law-school student at Columbia, Mr. Meredith got himself nominated on the Republican ticket to run against Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, until Jackie Robinson convinced him to withdraw. In 1967, he supported the gubernatorial re-election campaign of Ross Barnett, who did everything in his power to block Mr. Meredith’s admission into Ole Miss. Years later, Mr. Meredith proclaimed himself the most important African-American figure in the country, and told Mr. Hendrickson that “race is no longer a significant factor in politics in America.”

Mr. Meredith is the book’s tragic figure-a man, according to Mr. Hendrickson, whose psychic fragmentation was exacerbated by the shattering events at Ole Miss. “The cruelty of the ordeal at Ole Miss got welded onto the already mystical-messianic temperament,” he writes, “and what resulted, in the long after-years, was a life no one has been able to decode, not least the man himself.” This is one of the great conundrums of the Jim Crow South: Even the heroes of the civil-rights movement can’t be ennobled in a pleasing way. There are far too many shades of gray.

In the last third of the book, Mr. Hendrickson confirms that at least some of the sins of the fathers are passed down through the generations. He encounters John (J.J.) Cothran Jr., a manager at Home Depot who writes love poetry and has numerous friendships with black co-workers, yet feels that “we have blacks in Mississippi, and we have some niggers in Mississippi.” James Meredith’s children go in opposite directions: One gets an M.B.A. and becomes an academic, the other gets a year’s house arrest for a fatal car accident. Mr. Meredith’s fragmented life, it seems, has taken root in his offspring. Meanwhile, Adams County, Miss., sheriff Tommy Ferrell, Billy’s boy, becomes president of the National Sheriff’s Association, despite having a framed picture of a K.K.K. co-founder hanging in his office.

Mississippi’sinstitutionalized racism was so endemic to the culture that it never really went away, no matter how willful the forgetting. Instead of receding with time, it was swept up in the currents of history and continues to circulate even now. As Paul Hendrickson eloquently illustrates, Mississippi’s demon agents of Jim Crow were also the victims of the uncontrollable social forces, and the fear of being cast out of the state’s closed society shamed many of them into silence and complicity. That failure of nerve is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.

Marc Weingarten is writing a book about journalism in the 1960’s and 70’s. Racism’s Photographic Trace: Eyeing Hate, Mississippi-Style