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Civil Rights History Review     

 

Sons of Mississippi
By Paul Hendrickson
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
Hardcover, $26.00 (343 pages)
ISBN: 0-375-40461-9
 
 
 

Several years ago, in a bookstore in California, Paul Hendrickson picked up a copy of POWERFUL DAYS: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore. One particular image -- that of six sheriffs and a deputy sheriff at Ole Miss -- is the focal point for Sons of Mississippi. The lawmen, one of whom was holding a bat, planned to keep James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi in 1962. 

Hendrickson tells the consequences of one story from the Civil Rights Movement in three parts. He begins by identifying the seven men in the photograph -- who they were, where they were from, their attitudes toward the powers vested in them, and their redemption or lack thereof -- in 1962 and the present. 

Even though James Meredith is not in the photograph, his story is at the center of the book. Hendrickson places Meredith's story firmly in the middle to segue from one generation's legacy to another. Meredith, who broke the racial barriers at Ole Miss after serving his country in the military, is portrayed as an unstable man with a messianic complex. Meredith went on to work for Jesse Helms, endorse former Klansman David Duke for elected office (even going so far as to proffer himself as a vice-presidential running mate), and rage against the movement. The portrait of his sons is a Greek tragedy unto itself. 

Hendrickson brings his narrative to a conclusion by questioning the sons, grandsons, and relatives, of the sheriffs featured in the photograph. Many of their progeny have taken advantage of the "good ol' boy" network and have made law enforcement their careers as well. In each interview, Hendrickson attempts to show how each son has been untouched or transformed by their fathers. 

While Sons of Mississippi isn't without flaws, it's also not without interest. Hendrickson's authorial intrusions belong in another book. The stories here stand on their own. 

Paul Hendrickson, a feature writer for more than twenty years, teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He's the author of three previous books, including, The Living and the Dead (a finalist for the National Book Award in 1996) and Looking for the Light (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle in 1992).

 

Pam Kingsbury
Southern Scribe Reviews

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