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Tracing the hate in a 1962 photo

Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy, Paul Hendrickson, Alfred A. Knopf: 348 pp., $26

March 23, 2003|Karl Fleming | Karl Fleming, who reported on the civil rights movement for Newsweek magazine, is writing a memoir.

One February day in 1995, onetime Alabama seminarian cum Washington Post reporter cum book writer Paul Hendrickson was standing in a Berkeley bookstore flipping through a book of photographs about the civil rights movement when he came upon a picture "that stopped me in my tracks."

It was a photo taken in September 1962, on the campus of the University of Mississippi, of seven Mississippi sheriffs brandishing defiantly supercilious grins, a wooden club and strips of surgical gauze as they anticipated being part of what would be a monstrously violent effort to prevent the admission into Ole Miss of a 29-year-old black Air Force veteran named James Meredith.

The photo was taken by a courageous Alabama freelancer named Charles Moore and sold to Life magazine, which ran it as a double-page spread with a caption that said, "The official upholders of law and order ... are on the campus not to put down a riot but to take part in one of the incidents which led up to it."

Meredith's historic forced entry -- by court order and armed federal troops -- into Ole Miss a few days later touched off a massively violent all-night resistance encouraged by Gov. Ross Barnett and other state officials that left two people killed, including a reporter shot in the back, and dozens of U.S. marshals seriously wounded.

I was on campus that tear gas-filled night as a reporter for Newsweek magazine and, while taking refuge from the mob in a classroom building, watched as those seven sheriffs and every other Mississippi law enforcement officer there, including a caravan of 58 highway patrol cars, abandoned the campus to the rabble.

As for Hendrickson, transfixed by the black-and-white picture of the posturing sheriffs -- "these seven faces of Southern apartheid," he was suddenly alive with many questions, as he writes:

"How did these seven white Southerners get to be this way, and how did it all end, or how is it still going on, and was there no eventual shame here, and what happened to their progeny, especially their progeny, and was it all just ineluctable? To state it another way: where did the hatred and sorrow go that flowed out of this moment -- and out of a lot of other moments like it in seven particular lives that didn't get captured by a camera ... ? How did a gene of intolerance and racial fear mutate as it passed sinuously through time and family bloodstreams? And how has that gene reshaped itself, and possibly for the better?"

The result of his near-obsession with the photograph of these seven men, whose hold on him he couldn't quite explain except that he knew it represented "an overwhelming storytelling clarity," is a meticulously researched, exquisitely written and piercingly poignant book -- the best I have ever read about that period and that place.

Its publication comes at an odd time, fortuitous perhaps, being on the heels of Ole Miss frat boy Trent Lott's recently expressed nostalgia for the good old segregated days before the despised Kennedys forced Meredith's admission, when all-powerful Mississippi sheriffs could intimidate, beat and countenance and even participate in the killing of blacks with complete impunity.

In fact, Hendrickson begins his narrative with an incident, which he uses as a sort of stage-setter, that first awakened the nation to the brutality of the Mississippi segregation system: the savage execution in Money, Miss., of a 14-year-old black kid from Chicago who had the audacity to mouth off flirtatiously at a white woman. "They [the affronted woman's husband and his half brother] didn't just murder the cocky and supposedly fresh-mouthed Emmett Louis "Bobo" Till .... They made him undress and caved in his face and shot him in the head with a .45 and barbwired his neck to a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan. Then they dumped him into the Tallahatchie River."

The two incidents are linked through the photograph: One of the seven sheriffs admitted during an interview with Hendrickson that, as a deputy, he was the man who pulled Till's body from the water. Nobody, of course, was ever convicted in the case, or of virtually any of the other killings of blacks in Mississippi when later, with the help of "outside agitators," they began to protest their lot.

And how indeed did these sheriffs get to be the way they were, that they could be captured in a photo seeming to relish the prospect of doing violence to any "uppity" black who challenged the sanctified whiteness of Ole Miss? Only two of them were still alive when Hendrickson began his research, but his meticulous interviews and surveys of thousands of documents etches them pretty clearly.

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