- Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy
Curious about the nondescript brick sitting on my desk, David, my younger brother, asked, "What in the world is this?" Rather than attempt to detail for him the story of Emmett Till in my own words, I deferred to a far more eloquent source. Grabbing my copy of Paul Hendrickson's Sons of Mississippi, I opened to the prologue and allowed him a few minutes to take in the tragic Delta saga that "[n]early every Mississippi story sooner or later touches." After finishing the introduction, David realized the historical and rhetorical piece of gold idly sitting unguarded upon my desk. "How did you ever get this brick?"
I could tell by his accusatory tone he was indicting me for stealing from historical landmarks. I did not have much of a defense to offer. "I picked it up."
A small class of graduate students, led by our course instructor, traveled from Florida State University in Tallahassee to the Mississippi Delta for a weekend in late October 2003. During the trip we visited, among other Delta sites, the long-abandoned and dilapidated Bryant Grocery and Meat Market. Standing before the haunting structure was inspirational and humbling. Walking to the side of the building, so as to be out of the sight of my peers and professor, I appropriated a brick from the crumbling walls. The privacy of the moment was violated when my professor came around the corner and caught me red-handed. I was surprisingly delighted when instead of being chastised for my looting, the professor smiled slyly, "That's a good idea," and pocketed a brick for himself.
Inside the pockmarked and ocher mortar block breathes a legacy of hate, and for Paul Hendrickson, discovering the extent to which that heritage stretches through the generations is of primary concern. Hendrickson's narrative is engaging for anyone interested in learning more about the generational legacies of racism specifically and the human condition generally. Armed with a photograph taken 40 years ago that appeared in Life magazine, Hendrickson sets out to talk to the individuals locked forever inside the black-and-white celluloid. Within the frame of Charles Moore's photo are seven white Mississippi lawmen; under the magnolias in late September 1962, they share a moment of racial rapture: at the center, lawman William "Billy" Farrell smiles fiendishly at the billy club he's swinging. The visual enthymeme is only too clear: Meredith's head is the imagined target. The lawmen have come together in Oxford on the west side of the Ole Miss campus ostensibly to keep law and order. Yet when a riot breaks out as a reaction to James Meredith's attempt to integrate Mississippi's most prestigious public institution of higher learning, the sheriffs are nowhere to be found.
Although few of the lawmen are alive when Hendrickson begins his research, he relentlessly pursues the next of kin; in this manner he is able to [End Page 516] locate and map how Mississippi's legacy of hate reaches far beyond the grave. Focusing on how an individual's attitudes are shaped by one's heritage provides Hendrickson access to deep-seated fears and generational dreams of The Southern Way.
Moving from the prologue, each chapter provides another layer of perspective on Mississippi's racial past and present. The chapters are organized based upon the individuals Hendrickson interviews. The first part of the book's five chapters deal with the "Deeds of the Fathers." Sitting by a lake on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River with Billy Ferrell or eating a grilled cheese at a gas station café on Highway 49W, Hendrickson slowly gains insight into the attitudes and beliefs of the seven Mississippi sheriffs who occupy the photo. Perhaps even understanding. Occasionally respecting. Speaking with family members, friends, coworkers, and occasionally the former sheriffs themselves, Hendrickson establishes how inescapable the influence of geography and family remains. The next section of the book deals solely with "Filling up the Frame...