The story behind a searing image of the civil-rights era, from an author notable for his thoughtful considerations of recent history (The Living and the Dead, 1996, etc.).
The landmark Life photograph shows Billy Ferrell, a white Mississippi sheriff, gleefully swinging a billy club, surrounded by six colleagues, all ready to block James Meredith’s attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi in September 1962. Hendrickson (Nonfiction Writing/Univ. of Pennsylvania) tracked down two survivors of this group, as well as children and grandchildren, hoping to discover: “How did a gene of intolerance and racial fear mutate as it passed sinuously through time and family bloodstreams?” Through interviews and extensive research in private and government collections, he learned that one of the deceased sheriffs may have raped female prisoners and abetted murder. Yet succeeding generations could adapt in unexpected ways. Ferrell’s son Tom, for instance, with his father’s swagger and his own p.r. skills, became president of the National Sheriffs Association; grandson Ty serves as a US border patrol agent in New Mexico, uneasy about corralling illegal aliens. John Cothran, grandson of the morally ambivalent figure in the photograph with his back to the camera, is a store manager with warring impulses toward generosity and uncontrollable anger. Meredith’s son John is now an archconservative congressional lobbyist, while Joe overcame lupus and shyness to gain a doctoral degree at Ole Miss 40 years after his father’s admission. Hendrickson, a former feature writer for the Washington Post, crafts a narrative like the Mississippi River: it rolls along quietly, even lazily for long stretches, only to gather enormous power when least expected. He finds in this beautiful but haunted land “all the shadows of the overhanging Confederate past, along with the new shoots so susceptible to quick loss, trampling.”
A Faulknerian inquiry that circles back on itself as it reveals the heart of Dixie’s attempt to shed the instilled behavior of American apartheid as well as its legal code.