SONS OF MISSISSIPPI

A Story of Race and Its Legacy

By Paul Hendrickson

Knopf. 343 pp. $26

Thursday, Sept. 27, 1962: Six Mississippi sheriffs and one deputy form a rough circle under the shaded elms, oaks and catalpas of the Ole Miss campus in Oxford. Photographer Charles Moore, on assignment to cover James Meredith's attempt to integrate the university, points his camera over the shoulder of a state highway patrolman and snaps the shutter as Sheriff Billy Ferrell of Natchez -- cocky grin, cigarette clenched between his teeth -- hefts a weighted billy club like a centerfielder squaring off at the plate. In the vivid photograph that ran in a two-page spread in Life Magazine, several of Ferrell's fellow lawmen are also smiling.

We see them through the harsh lens of history; we do not smile back. We have denatured political demagogues such as Strom Thurmond, Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett and George Wallace and tucked them away safely in our history texts, but the Southern lawmen -- potbellied, tobacco chewing, squint-eyed with menace -- live on in our nightmares. In Sons of Mississippi, former Washington Post staff writer Paul Hendrickson offers a reminder that the men in this picture were not just pure evil. Each man was, in the words of one aging civil rights veteran, "lots of things. Like any life."

Sons of Mississippi isn't really about the figures in the photograph, Hendrickson insists. "It's about what's deeply connected but is off the page. . . . It's about what has come down from this photograph." Fair enough, but his book is rooted in that September afternoon in 1962; by the time Hendrickson took up the story, only former sheriffs Billy Ferrell and John Ed Cothran were still alive to talk about it. As the book unfolds, the reader is pulled across the confusing terrain of the past: back through the men's childhoods and then forward through their lives and those of their children and grandchildren.

For anyone who has struggled through the multiple voices, tenses and shifting points of view of one of Faulkner's more complex novels, Sons of Mississippi is a modest challenge. Still, it is a challenge. Hendrickson is a talented writer, with an eye for the telling detail and a comfortable voice that is both personal and lyrical in the style of a James Agee or a W.J. Cash, but he does not stalk his subjects. He sits on their porches and drinks iced tea; he watches them play with their grandchildren; he eats their steak and gravy; he sometimes takes notes, but often he simply listens as they meander through their fractured memories. The reader must stay alert: "Oh yes, that's Billy's Ferrell's son, Tommy, who's now the sheriff instead of his father. He was sitting at the restaurant with his father when we last met him. He seemed a bit resentful."

The three generations of Ferrells come closest to forming a connecting thread for Sons of Mississippi, but despite hours of conversations Hendrickson had with and about Billy Ferrell through the late 1990s, the club-swinging sheriff died an enigmatic figure. Was he a dark-of-night Klansman, the mean, vicious variety, or the cautious man in the middle, committed to segregation but anxious to avoid the shedding of blood? The trail has grown cold. In the end we have only a few inconclusive documents, hazy memories. As civil-rights activist George Greene said about men like Billy Ferrell, you "never knew what they were thinking."

Billy's son, William T. "Tommy" Ferrell Jr., is a sheriff of the New South, presiding over a racially integrated team of deputies; a close friend of Sen. Trent Lott; and president of the National Sheriff's Association. He is filled with the confident certitudes of a successful small-town Southern businessman who regularly worships at the First Baptist Church. Billy's grandson, William T. "Ty" Ferrell III, a young federal border patrolman in New Mexico, comes closest to confronting the past. He is, as Hendrickson says, an "immensely likable and palpably conflicted man [who] has picked up his family's whole history with race and carried it about 1,000 miles westward, into a twenty-first-century setting." He chases desperate illegal aliens to ground, but as he sits and watches with his high-tech equipment, he broods. "Ty Ferrell will ask himself. . . . But wouldn't I be doing exactly what they're doing if the situation were reversed?"

There are flashes of such painful self-reckoning in the generation twice removed from that 1962 photograph. For instance, John Cothran, grandson and namesake of the lawman with his back to the camera, has struggled through three and then four bad marriages, poverty, a murderous rage and a yen for the bottle, but he sees himself with a clear-eyed truthfulness, and he tries again and again to put race aside as he deals with friends and co-workers.

While a handful of black and white civil rights activists form a Greek chorus of measured judgment in the story, Hendrickson is unfailingly polite. He finds it hard to ask outright what he clearly wants to know: Now that you're sick and dying, do you look back and brood, not simply over the photograph, but all that it represents? What do you think now of your daddy or your granddaddy? Is it you? Or has that gene of racial fear and hatred passed out of your blood?

But most of the angst in this book comes from the author, not the men and women whose stories he tells. Gradually one senses the futility of his search for self-reflection. If any of the lawmen had second thoughts about their past, they seem to have concealed it from the author, and perhaps from themselves. Eventually he seems to understand that most of the white Southerners he encounters have decided for the sake of their sanity that "the past is nothing but the past and why stir it up and get folks thinking again about things that can't be undone."

In Sons of Mississippi, Hendrickson attempts to break past that wall of selective memory and deliberate amnesia, to "remember things whole." Only in the eye of God is such a thing possible, but one shouldn't scorn him for overreaching. These polite and twisting conversations and the slanting cutbacks into history provide a complicated -- and truthful -- glimpse into the lives of three generations of white Southerners passing between a world of unquestioned white supremacy to one in which blacks and whites in Mississippi struggle to find new ways of living together in a place haunted by history. *

Dan Carter, who teaches history at the University of South Carolina, is writing a biography of Asa "Forrest" Carter, a Klansman turned bestselling novelist.

Charles Moore's photograph, which appeared in Life magazine in 1962, shows six Mississippi sheriffs and a deputy on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford.