Thursday, May 29, 2003

Burning Mississippi

Writers and filmmakers won't let go of Mississippi's racist past.

Posted By on Thu, May 29, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Mississippi, it's often said, is stuck in the past. But is any other state so constantly reminded of the worst elements of its past by authors, journalists, and moviemakers?

Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy by Paul Hendrickson, a former feature writer for The Washington Post who now teaches writing, is the latest exploration of the desegregation of Ole Miss in 1962 by James Meredith. Just two years ago, Nadine Cohodas plowed much of the same ground in The Band Played Dixie. Newspaper reporters revisit the story on increasingly frequent "major" anniversaries or whenever Meredith makes a ceremonial visit. Sometimes the mere revival of the periodic controversy over the Colonel Rebel mascot is enough of an excuse to dust off the story.

The desegregation of Ole Miss isn't the only target. The 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County has been the subject of a book and two movies, Attack on Terror and Mississippi Burning. The assassination of Medgar Evers and the long-delayed trial of Byron De La Beckwith were made into the movie Ghosts of Mississippi. An effort is under way to reopen the 1955 murder case of Emmett Till. If it is reopened, a movie won't be far behind.

Other states have unsolved murders and travesties of justice, but they don't capture the national imagination -- or at least the imagination of writers and editors and publishers -- the way Mississippi does. I worked in Mississippi for three years, and my wife's family lives there. The surest way to get national attention for a story was to write about civil rights and the Ku Klux Klan. Anniversaries generated articles which generated books which generated movies which generated more articles and books until a new genre was created: Mississippi porno.

Hendrickson does an exhaustive and, ultimately, exhausting examination of the seven Mississippi sheriffs in a semifamous magazine photograph taken days before the rioting in Oxford that killed two people and tore the campus apart. While one of the lawmen seems to be showing off his batting prowess with a stick or club, others sneer or grin in apparent approval.

That picture may well be worth 1,000 words. But Hendrickson takes 300 pages documenting what happened to the sheriffs (two of whom were alive and willing to be interviewed by him) and their children to explore the legacy of racism. In some ways, Sons of Mississippi is a companion book to David Halberstam's 1998 book The Children, about the black college students who desegregated the lunch counters in Nashville in 1960.

But unlike Halberstam's Children, who included future Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry and future congressman John Lewis, these seven old racists did nothing remarkable with their lives. The two surviving sheriffs turn out to be somewhat conflicted about their past but not all that different in their racial attitudes from what we've learned about some of the cops in, say, Chicago, South Boston, or Los Angeles. Hendrickson gains the trust of the families and former colleagues of the seven sheriffs and chronicles their dinner-table conversations and reactions to the picture and its aftermath. Surprise! The children got on with their lives, no matter how hard Hendrickson tries to tie their fate to a 40-year-old picture of their fathers.

The most extraordinary person in the book is Meredith, who might be leading a quiet life in Jackson, Mississippi, if writers did not insist on making him an American icon. Hendrickson is the latest to chronicle Meredith's failures as a political candidate, crusader, businessman, aide to Jesse Helms, and university lecturer. But Meredith was a very competent writer, and his autobiographical book, Three Years in Mississippi, is must reading. Everything else on Ole Miss in 1962 is an epilogue.

Hendrickson pays homage to the standard good guys, including Ole Miss history professors David Sansing and the late James Silver and the late writer Willie Morris. This is Mississippi by the numbers. He talks with former Mississippi governor and historian William Winter about sheriffs and the black-market whiskey tax that put as much as $100,000 a year in fees into their pockets. (As state treasurer in the Fifties, Winter was also a fee-paid official and profited from the bootleg-whiskey tax before abolishing it, but Hendrickson gives him a pass.)

The photograph itself is seriously misleading. Whatever their mindset, the sheriffs were not in Oxford to give James Meredith a beating. As Hendrickson notes, they were at a conference and did not take part in the rioting. Meredith surely went through hell but was not physically beaten by anyone. The picture is arguably less famous than one taken three years later in Neshoba County of Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price, laughing and sharing a bag of Red Man chewing tobacco during a court appearance. Price was convicted of conspiracy in the murders of three civil rights workers (and the picture became a derisive poster about law enforcement on college campuses).

Different lawmen, different circumstances, but all "sons of Mississippi," then and forever, in the eyes of the national media.

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