A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past

By W. Ralph Eubanks

Basic. 256 pp. $25.

In 1956, Mississippi, in what Ralph Eubanks accurately calls "a strident effort to maintain segregation and white supremacy," established a State Sovereignty Commission "to spy on its citizens and keep a handle on anyone, black or white, who challenged Jim Crow segregation." That was a year before Eubanks was born near a Mississippi hamlet called Mount Olive. Four decades later, the commission's files became available on the Internet. Eubanks, by then director of publications at the Library of Congress, decided to have a look.

To his horror and disbelief, he found among the 87,000 names listed in the files those of Warren and Lucille Eubanks, his parents, "ordinary, middle-class folks . . . who were NAACP members back then, but could not be called front-line activists by any stretch of the imagination." Stunned, he "began to feel sick, as if someone had suddenly punched me in the stomach." Then, he says, "it hit me: In addition to everything else I had to tell my children, now I also had to explain to them that the state of Mississippi had spied on their grandparents."

With that realization, Eubanks embarked upon a long journey into the past: his own, his family's, his native state's. He did it for his three children -- to whom, along with his wife, he has dedicated this book -- but the result, "Ever Is a Long Time," will be a gift to everyone who reads it, a book that is at once a touching family memoir and an attempt -- successful -- to come to terms with the author's past. Eubanks takes his title from the words of James P. Coleman, the governor of Mississippi and a "moderate" by the standards of that state in 1957, when he was asked on "Meet the Press" if public schools in Mississippi would ever be desegregated. "Well," he said, "ever is a long time, [but] I would say that a baby born in Mississippi today will never live long enough to see an integrated school."

Two days later, Eubanks was born, to a father who was "a dark-skinned black man" and a mother who was "the whitest-looking black woman you ever did see." Twelve years later, "ever" arrived: In January 1970, young Ralph entered Mount Olive School, which until then had been all white. Most other black children who entered the school that year were put into segregated classrooms, but Eubanks "was put into an integrated classroom, as were my two older sisters, [so] we bore the burden of being both the subjects of an experiment and trailblazers."

Eubanks's account of his 41/2 years at Mount Olive School is balanced and nuanced, but then so is everything else in this exceptional book. Were Eubanks inclined toward bitterness, he'd have plenty of excuses -- his parents' listing by the Sovereignty Commission, the violent confrontations over civil rights that took place throughout the South during his boyhood, the slights and discrimination he suffered at Mount Olive School and then at the University of Mississippi -- but he declines bitterness at every turn. No doubt equanimity is simply in his nature, but he certainly was helped in that direction by his father.

Warren Eubanks was "Negro County Agent" for Covington County in south-central Mississippi. The state education program for farmers, the Cooperative Extension Service, "operated on the principle of separate but equal," and Warren Eubanks put the emphasis on "equal." As a small boy Ralph often accompanied his father on his rounds, in the course of which he learned "everything I needed to know later in life, particularly in high school and college, about navigating through an integrated world." Warren Eubanks was firm, fair, polite and disciplined:

"The behavior he expected from me around white people was the same as it was around black people: perfect. There was no double standard. In fact, from my limited perspective I saw no discernible difference in the way you behaved around black people or white people. . . . White people were not mysterious creatures to be feared or to be emulated; they were just people. As a result, I learned the importance of being yourself and not what people or society wanted you to be."

Eubanks's path toward that genuine American rarity -- a view of humanity that acknowledges race but transcends it -- was shaped not just by his father's instruction and example but by his family history. His maternal grandfather, Jim Richardson, was a white man who in 1915 ran away from his native Alabama to Mississippi, "to marry a light-skinned black woman named Edna Howell." They eventually returned to Alabama, to Prestwick, "a thriving African American community" where Richardson "supported the local African Methodist church and lived among the black people who accepted him as one of their own. . . . Jim may have been a white man, but he didn't let his children grow up being ashamed to be black. Without deception, he understood the burden of race and color."

That is by any standard an extraordinary legacy to pass on to one's children and grandchildren. It is all the more extraordinary in this case because of where and when Jim and Edna Richardson lived. They married in defiance of custom and of the law; by the time Eubanks's mother was born, in 1928, interracial marriage was a felony in Alabama.

So Jim built the family's house at the end of a country road, on the theory that anyone who came with trouble in mind would have no way out, and with his wife reared a daughter who "both looked white and had no fear of whites." Like her husband, Lucille Eubanks had much of value to pass on to their son.

Returning to Mississippi in the late 1990s after living for many years in Washington, Ralph Eubanks learned not that you can't go home again, but that doing so can be difficult. That is especially so, needless to say, when home is a place where your own people were discriminated against, harassed and sometimes brutally assaulted. In Eubanks's mind the Sovereignty Commission was the summation and embodiment of all that, and until he could find a way to come to terms with it, he would be unable to feel at home in Mississippi: "once I understood Mississippi's past in my head, I could find a place for it in my heart." It is from that quest that this book emerges:

"I want my children to know the joys I experienced growing up in Mississippi, for often I think that it has done as much for me as it did to me. Mississippi, the land and its history, inhabits and haunts me; its music and rhythms, both the joyful and the melancholy, have followed me my entire life, even when I tried to run away from them. I could never escape because being a Mississippian is the source of my inner strength. It lies at the core of my identity."

Reading those words, you will not be surprised to learn that while he was in Oxford at Ole Miss, Eubanks came under the spell of its most famous son, William Faulkner. It would be a mistake to call "Ever Is a Long Time" Faulknerian, for Eubanks's prose is as lean and clean as Faulkner's is tangled and labyrinthine, but its roots are as deep in Mississippi's soil as are those of anything Faulkner wrote. It is, in all respects, an exemplary and admirable piece of work.