Arts » Books

A Picture Worth Thousands of Words

The Civil Rights Era's violent past meets the present


Old photos are fascinating. They capture a moment long since gone, freezing all of the details from a place -- the people, the clothing they chose to wear that day and even the shadows they cast on the ground around them. Sometimes, depending on the photograph, more than just the visual imagery is captured.Such is the case with a photograph published in the pages of Life magazine in 1962. Paul Hendrickson bases his book Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy on that photograph, which was shot on September 27, 1962, in the wake of would-be student James Meredith's historic attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi.

The photo captures the images of seven Mississippi sheriffs: John Henry Spencer of Pittsboro, James Lee Grimsley of Pascagoula, Bob Waller of Hattiesburg, Billy Ferrell of Natchez, Jimmy Middleton of Port Gibson, James Wesley Garrison of Oxford and John Ed Cothran of Greenwood.

Six of the men had traveled to Oxford (Garrison was a town resident) in an effort to stymie the integration effort. They're captured here in a jovial mood, apparently bemused by the potential violence that might lie ahead.

Most disturbing is the central figure in the photo: Sheriff Billy Ferrell of Natchez, gripping a cigarette tightly between his teeth while he takes a practice swing with a billy club at an imaginary agitator.

Hendrickson skillfully blends past and present as smoothly as in a novel, while he interviews those involved who are still living, or the friends and family of the already deceased.

His intentions go beyond mere historical documentation, however. While tracing the footsteps of the seven in the aftermath of the University of Mississippi incident, he also follows them to the present day (when possible, of course -- Ferrell was alive at the beginning of the undertaking but died during the process and Cothran is the only other survivor) and explores the effects of their behavior on their descendants.

Meredith puts it best when he examines the photo in question: "You want to know what came down from these guys."

For the most part, it's a sad tale. The racist views these men held 40 years ago barely changed during the remaining years of their lives and seemingly ate away at them like the cancer or the alcoholism that eventually consumed some of them.

Despite the despicable nature of the story, Hendrickson isn't the judge here -- he presents his story without any moralizing or condemnation of his characters. Just the facts -- albeit couched in a flourish of prose.

It's Hendrickson's deft swipe of a pen that makes this story work so well.

His first chapter introduces you to Ferrell -- painting a portrait of an almost likeable racist, then turning the tables just as quickly by presenting Ferrell's hate-filled opinions of the Kennedy family.

The lives of the other sheriffs follow, one by one, each carrying its own signature sadness -- perhaps some kind of karmic payback.

Jim Garrison ages well before his time, losing his job as sheriff and ending up in the management of a Long John Silver's restaurant before he dies of cancer at age 51. James Lee Grimsley battles alcoholism the rest of his days and dies alone, according to Hendrickson, "in a boxy little pine-board house. . .in the sweltering town at the bottom of the state." John Henry Spencer lives to be 89, but it's a lengthy life filled with pain that saw the death of a son and his own death from congestive heart failure and cancer. Jimmy Middleton makes it to 82, but in the end he's penniless, property-less and dies of a heart attack en route to the hospital. Bob Waller meets a similar fate, dying in an ambulance following a heart attack on the way to a hospital. John Ed Cothran -- the man with his back turned to the camera -- is alive and still quite healthy and strong at the age of 85. Twice a widower, he recently married his third wife.

Hendrickson devotes other portions of his book to a rather disturbing profile of James Meredith -- clearly the event at Ole Miss left an indelible mark from which he never recovered -- and other sections to the children of the various sheriffs.

It's that final section where he confirms that some of the sins of the fathers are indeed visited upon the children.

John Cothran Jr. is a manager at Home Depot who maintains friendships with some black co-workers, yet doesn't recoil from the use of the word "nigger." Billy Ferrell's son Tommy becomes president of the National Sheriff's Association, although he has a framed picture of a KKK co-founder hanging in his office.

There are many messages to be taken away from this book -- times have changed, race isn't the issue it once was, there's still much to be accomplished -- take your pick. My favorite, perhaps the most obvious, is the reality of time. No one escapes its end results.

Add a comment