Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Notes: Sons of Mississippi by Paul Hendrickson

The traditional ratio of pictures to words painted is 1:1000. In this remarkable (if not rather long) book, Paul Hendrickson uses one single photo - and spends many thousands of words teasing out its meaning and consequences. Below is the photo which inspired the book:

The photo is by acclaimed photographer Charles Moore, who travelled through the southern United States in the 1950s and 60s capturing images for his editor. On many notable occasions during this period he was asked to photograph the unfolding drama of the Civil Rights marches and conflicts. According to Hendrickson, Moore had an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time - but also the skill of knowing how to capture a scene, lock a moment in time down onto photographic paper.

This photo was taken in Oxford, Mississippi as the town braced itself for the entry of one young student to The University of Mississippi: James Meredith. Ole Miss had been strictly whites-only throughout its history, a policy which Meredith had demonstrated was unconstitutional, and which he was manouvering the Kennedy brothers into forcibly tackling. The men in the photo awaiting a civil rights protest are Mississippi lawmen; sheriff's who had travelled from across the State to lend their support to Jim Crow - against Federal 'interference'. The man at the centre gleefully swinging a Billy-club for the others approval is Sheriff Billy Ferrel - of Natchez, Miss. The photo which Moore gained (without the knowledge of the subjects) on the Ole Miss campus that night, represents a last stand of the Old South, a unique moment in history. We are asked to imagine that the object in Ferrell's mind as he swings that bat is Meredith's skull, which gives the leering approval of the other Sheriffs the chilling air of a lynch mob.

Intrigued by this stark photo, Hendrickson went in search of the men in it. He tracked them down, interviewed those still living and friends, family and colleagues of those now dead. Hendrickson paints astutely observed histories and portraits of all these characters. In so doing, he finds a range of personalities from drink-sodden violent racist thugs, to patricians whose racism was (even then) cloaked behind a respectability which considered itself above violence. He unearths their stories, their families, their attitudes to policing - and race. To complete the picture he also tracked down the man whose actions generated this conflict, the complex, mercurial and bewildering figure of James Meredith too.

That much would have made a tremendous book in itself - but Hendrickson goes much further. When he has used the lives of these lawmen to open up the complex nature of race in Mississippi (and it is a complex and nuanced picture he unearths - not a Hollywood myth in which every white male Mississippian in that tempestuous decade was a Klan member) he doesn't end his tale in 1962. Instead his research continues down the family-trees of these men, through two further generations. In so doing he presents a series of insights into the evolving nature of Mississippi society in general and racial attitudes in particular.

As he does so we meet second and third generation lawmen, Sheriffs now in their own right. For many of those Hendrickson meets they walk in an unreconciled tension between their present duty towards impartiality and their attachment to their personal and family history. Moore's photo might be an image which has caused outrage across the world, but it is displayed in some homes with pride and without irony. Then again, so is the portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest in one grandson's Sheriff's office.

The stories of these families are insightful, moving and in several cases tragic. Hendrickson has the ability to write about these sometimes racist-people in realistic ways which neither excuse their wrong, nor caricature them as being defined solely by it. Dr King's non-violent tactics were predicated on the idea of reaching for the humanity of the oppressor, and Hendrickson writes in this vein, even when sharply critiquing many of the things they say. I remember having a discussion with my research-supervisor after we had watched some of the PBS "Eyes on the Prize" series on The Civil Rights era. We saw the crowds in Cicero, Chicago swelling with hatred as Jesse Jackson led a march against the de-facto segregation system operating there. I commented that a book needed to be written about these segregationists to compliment the amount I had read about the Civil Rights heroes. Who were these people? Why did they think in these ways? What did they fear so much? (etc). My supervisor disagreed - he argued that such a book would simply paint racism with an excusable face, humanise it and give it an unwarranted degree of respectability. He feared that the everyday struggles of racists (who also can be victims of crime, hatred, disappointment or cancer), would engender a pathos from the reader which might 'spill-over' to their evil ideology of race. When I saw Hendrickson's book on a recent visit to the States, I picked it up for precisely this reason - to see if my hope for such a book could be realised, or if my supervisors fears were well founded. My judgement is that that Hendrickson has provided exactly the kind of insightful book required, and in no way ends up generating sympathy for racist ideas, in fact quite the opposite.

His account of the great-grandchildren of these violent segregationists is equally fascinating. We meet some for whom race is still a burning issue, whose accommodation to contemporary realities is not complete. We meet others who seem to have been able to sever themselves from the ugly-elements of their heritage - and still more who (helpfully) admit to deep-seated prejudices which they are actively seeking to overcome. Hendrickson presents an image of Mississippi in which four decades after strident James Meredith required Federal troops to get him into University - his diffident grandson quietly completes his PhD there without fanfare. A place in which inter-racial marriage is commonplace and visible on the streets, yet a place in which the ghost of young Emmett Till still seems curiously close.

Hendrickson writes sometimes like an academic, and sometimes like a journalist. His research is of a historian's quality, but his writing is sometimes florid and over-emphasises story-telling at the expense of analysis. The book is then perhaps over-long (and the print-size is minute!), a historian might have achieved as much in a lot less space. Nevertheless, it is a truly fascinating insight into a world I do not know, and quite brilliantly uses that one iconic Civil-Rights photograph as a spring-board to paint a remarkable picture of the white South. He does so with astute observation, sound research and a pathos for most of his subjects which never crosses the line into endorsing their wrong-doings.

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