A plantation-owning senator and an impoverished farmer face off in the Mississippi Delta.
There is little doubt that the author is deeply invested in Sunflower County, Miss., where he worked for years as an educator and activist, but Asch may have stuffed too much information about his adopted home into a single book. It not only chronicles the life and work of Sunflower’s most renowned residents, longtime Senator James Eastland and civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, but also the intricate details of the Delta cotton industry and the origins of pioneer Dixie settlements. The spotlight shines brightest on Eastland, scion of Sunflower’s most prestigious plantation family, who was elected to the Senate in 1942 on the strength of his pro-cotton platform. When the Jim Crow status quo was threatened, he found his voice as one of the country’s most devout white supremacists. Eastland eventually landed the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, affording him significant power until his retirement in 1978, and capably dispatched several key civil-rights bills. But back home in Sunflower, he found a formidable opponent in Hamer, the youngest child in a brood of 20 born to sharecropping farmers. After a failed attempt at voter registration led to her arrest, unemployment and indigence, Hamer joined the civil-rights movement. She took on everyone from Democratic Party demagogues to Big Cotton. However, remarks the author in closing, Sunflower County today remains “resiliently separate and unequal.” The book sometimes suffers from Asch’s overuse of his meticulous research: Countless, often tangential quotations crowd lengthy passages of pedantic exposition, slowing the narrative flow. Hamer doesn’t make much of an appearance until well into the book’s second half—a shame, as she’s far more compelling than the exhaustive catalogue of Eastland’s policy work the author provides instead. However, Asch has crafted an objective, engaging and authoritative portrait of two polarizing figures.
Eminently readable despite its narrow academic lens.