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.
They ranged from poisonously sadistic racists to alcoholic buffoons to go-along, get-along strivers to Ku Klux Klan members to seemingly devout Christians who believed it was God's will to maintain white racial purity. They shared a common, if unspoken, fear of the black man's alleged sexual potency, and they believed that the invasion of the white schoolroom was a first step toward the invasion of the white bedroom. They all came from poor backgrounds and sought the sheriffdoms in part for money and prestige. The sheriffs of Mississippi were also the county tax collectors and they got a percentage of what they took in. If they were willing to take payoffs, as many were, they could make $200,000 or more a year. They hired their own deputies, and they were willing to do whatever it took to protect the system, including keeping blacks away from the ballot box.
From the mid-'50s on, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate public schools were not equal and lawsuits began to be filed, Mississippi became, as Hendrickson quotes a gutsy Ole Miss historian named Jim Silver, "as near to approximating a police state as anything we have yet seen in America." The powerful sheriffs played a key role. Mississippi had funded with taxpayer money a secretive organization called the Sovereignty Commission whose charge was to resist integration at all costs. The sheriffs were its key spies and enforcers. From a 1960 "SovCom" document: "I visited Sheriff John Henry Spencer [one of the seven] and I was informed that there is no known NAACP operating in Calhoun County. They have no names of any potential Negro agitators and are not acquainted with any possible racial unrest or problem and all have advised they will inform the Sovereignty Commission immediately should such a situation arise."
Thus the sheriffs were used by the white power structure and in a sense were victims as well as victimizers, and had they chosen not to go along -- and in their hearts a few of them seemed to know that what they were doing was deeply wrong -- they would have been ostracized or worse, as were a few courageous newspaper people who tried to resist. Hendrickson chronicles their mainly ignominious agings (some ended up working as security guards and as managers of fast-food joints) and dyings, not with fulminating outrage but with a probing but gentle and elegiac inquisitiveness.
And what of their progeny? In the main they had not fared well, had not escaped the bounds that had trapped their parents. Says one: "I think the morals of this country disintegrated with forced integration ... because black people as a whole don't have the same morals as white people.... If Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1960s [where his father was sheriff] had been let alone to solve its own problems, we wouldn't have had all these problems with the federal government." Hello, Trent Lott.
But Hendrickson found profound change and hope as well. Mississippi blacks now vote in vast numbers, safe from the violence of cruel sheriffs, and hold a lot of elective offices. Thirteen percent of Ole Miss students are now black. Meredith's son got a doctorate there and hardly anyone took notice. One of the sheriffs' progeny had himself become not only a Mississippi sheriff but also head of a national sheriffs' association, a fair and decent man. Another, who had a lot of bad luck, "spoke with affection of his new neighbors, a black husband and wife." Another worked in complete harmony beside black equals at a Home Depot. Another manages a cottonseed oil mill, and he struggles worthily to break from the past.
"Imagine," writes Hendrickson of him, "a Mississippi back-country farm family had traveled in one generation from a father who didn't get beyond grammar school to a college-educated son who sits behind a desk and seeks to be fair to a black workforce while he makes his own handsome living, one token of which is membership in a country club that won't admit blacks. In some ways that seems about the right metaphor for Mississippi in a new century: all the shadows of the overhanging Confederacy, along with the new shoots so susceptible to quick loss, trampling."
This, then, is a beautiful, poetic book about an ugly time in America's South. It's been a long time since I have been so moved.