Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

Knopf Publishing Group
  • United States Studies
  • Civil & Human Rights

Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy Overview

They stand as unselfconscious as if the photograph were being taken at a church picnic and not during one of the pitched battles of the civil rights struggle. None of them knows that the image will appear in Life magazine or that it will become an icon of its era. The year is 1962, and these seven white Mississippi lawmen have gathered to stop James Meredith from integrating the University of Mississippi. One of them is swinging a billy club. More than thirty years later, award-winning journalist and author Paul Hendrickson sets out to discover who these men were, what happened to them after the photograph was taken, and how racist attitudes shaped the way they lived their lives. But his ultimate focus is on their children and grandchildren, and how the prejudice bequeathed by the fathers was transformed, or remained untouched, in the sons. Sons of Mississippi is a scalding yet redemptive work of social history, a book of eloquence and subtlely that tracks the movement of racism across three generations and bears witness to its ravages among both black and white Americans. Winner of the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction.

Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy Excerpt

Chapter 1
Dying Billy

In his retirement, which wasn't kingly but pretty sweet, Billy Ferrell loved sitting on the dock of his lake house, watching Taco, his Labrador-blue heeler mix, splash around for bream and shad and the occasional white perch. It didn't matter a doughnut that the dog seldom got anything. It was good just to be down at the pier by himself or with a crony, in a peeling metal chair on the moss-green unpainted wood, looking out over the shallow water of the skinny, torpid lake. Hazel Ferrell would be up at the house, fussing with something or other, and so he'd sneak a smoke, cupping it on the inside of his fist so his wife wouldn't know, saying to himself, Well, hell, what is life but a series of doing a bunch of little things you're not supposed to do? Sometimes she'd bring down coffee for him. Seeing his spouse coming, the high sheriff of Natchez-which is how everyone still thought of Billy Ferrell, even if he wasn't sheriff anymore, that was his boy Tommy's show now-would quickly stub the cigarette out on the backside of the deck and toss it in the water.

His arteries were clogging and the circulation in his legs wasn't good and there was a cancerous mass growing secretly in his lungs, but he was still a handsome man and he knew it. Vanity and pride had always been core Ferrell flaws. He wore gold-rimmed glasses now. The teeth were in trouble and his coal-black hair, which once had glistened in pictures and was parted forty-five degrees to the left, had thinned to long swipes of dirty white. He'd become ruddy-faced and gargly-voiced, and his breath seemed to emerge from him in hard little pants. And yet, this final Billy Ferrell-weakening, sedentary, semidepressed, widened out-was still capable of coming at you with that old incisored, tough-guy, top-dog grin; with that noted, flat-lined, crow's-footed, predatory squint. The grin and the squint-didn't they explain everything about the Mississippi doctrine of Might Is Right?

Both had been there when he'd campaigned for sheriff the first time. That was in 'fifty-nine. He was a young man then, in his mid-thirties, good-looking as all get-out, albeit with a kind of blocky, sober, big-eared, straight-ahead earnestness in his speech and manner. He'd run ads for himself before the Democratic primary that summer, as all the candidates had, and there were a slew of them, candidates that is, something like eight or nine. He was already well known, since he'd been a sheriff's deputy for eight years, and since he'd lived in Adams County all his life, except for when he'd been to the war. "He has never been known to conduct himself in any manner that would bring discredit to his badge or the people he represented," the ads said. "We know Billy Ferrell and his Devotion to Duty, His Character, His Sincerity of Purpose, His Unrelenting Courage and his High Principles. Let's elect William T. 'Billy' Ferrell Our Sheriff and Tax Collector." And Natchez did. They elected him for the next twenty-eight years, with the exception of one four-year window of time, 1964-68, when he couldn't succeed himself because, back then, a sheriff in Mississippi could be sheriff for only four years at a stretch. In some counties (there are eighty-two in the state), sheriffs would get their wives elected as interim sheriffs, while they did the real thing behind the scenes. Billy Ferrell laid out a term (he sold Ford clunkers at Bluff City Cars and tried to run a Gulf station and hauled some gravel and worked for Premo Stallone's plumbing business and did a stint as a city policeman, but everybody knew he was just whiling his time), and then he came back in, and then the succession law was changed, and then Natchez and the county seemed willing to make him pope of the county for life. Well, white Natchez always seemed willing, and they had the majority. But after six terms, the high sheriff decided not to run anymore and handed the job over to Tommy in 1988. Tommy still had to get elected by the people, but he had the Ferrell name, and in Natchez, for most of the last half of the twentieth century, that name was almost synonymous with the word "badge." There'd been a sheriff in Natchez since 1798, and for one-fifth of that time the Ferrells had owned the title.

Billy had been number 32a on the ballot machines in that first race, and in the runoff campaign between himself and Morris Doughty, some unsavory elements had tried to buy him into withdrawing. There'd been a secret meeting on the levee, on the Louisiana side of the river, and somebody had produced a gob of hundreds, maybe $10,000 worth of hundreds, and stuck it at him. All Billy had to do was take his name off and let Doughty win. He'd never dreamed of so much money. But he wouldn't take his name off-not that he didn't think it over a heavy minute, walk around the back side of the pickup and discuss the situation with his old pal Premo Stallone, whom he'd known practically all his life. William T. Ferrell stayed on the ballot, and on election day, the lever with his name on it was the one that got pulled by enough Natchezeans for him to squeak it out. That contest marked the first time a county in Mississippi went modern with voting machines, but corruption being what corruption is, it didn't stop bribes or offers of bribes.

The lake house, to which Billy and Hazel had repaired after he'd hung up the gear, was on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, upstream a little bit from Natchez. To get there, you took the big bridge over to Vidalia, Louisiana, and then went to Ferriday, Louisiana, and then drove north to the lake and came on around to the back side of it and started looking for Ferrell Lane. When Billy and Hazel first got a weekend place up on Lake St. John-Billy was still sheriffing-all they could afford was a double-wide trailer. Now they had a three-bedroom brick house. If the garage door was open, and the retired couple was home, you'd spy a white Lincoln, never dirty. In the living room, the console TV with the fifty-two-inch screen would doubtless be going. Paw-Paw and Mimsy, as their grandkids called them, had an antenna that could pull in Moscow and Monterrey, Mexico, but they couldn't get good reception from a Natchez station, which was only across the river and about a half hour's drive away. Billy enjoyed tuning in Russia and Mexico on his giant wood-encased TV even if, as he said, he didn't know what the hell they were saying. He watched an awful lot of television in those last years at Lake St. John-not sex shows or Oprah, but news programs. He liked to say he knew what was going on, which is what he'd been content to say of himself when he was in office: He "had the rap from the ax," was his expression.

An example: Some collegians and two of their teachers got off a bus on July 5, 1961, in the semitropical antebellum river town of Natchez, which is in the southwestern corner of Mississippi, sitting on great bluffs, at a bend in the river. Billy had been sheriff of Adams County a year and a half then. The students and their two faculty chaperones were from Adelphi College in New York, and they were traveling on an interstate carrier out of New Orleans. From nearly the moment they stepped into the Trailways bus terminal at 5 p.m., they were watched. Even though Natchez was a tourist town, famous for its plantation "pilgrimages," site of the South's oldest slave-owning cotton aristocracy, they would have been watched: They were suspiciously young, traveling in a group, northern accents. But even more so in this case, since right away they'd begun asking impertinent questions about the terminal's segregated waiting rooms. That evening, Sheriff Billy Ferrell sent a Teletype under his special teletypewriter number, NTZ-44. He sent it to General T. B. Birdsong, commander of the Mississippi Highway Patrol (he used to be a colonel, but now he was a general), and also to the director of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which was a state-sponsored and tax-supported agency whose charter was to spy on the civil rights movement. The Sov-Com was based in Jackson, the capital city, two and a half hours away. this afternoon on a bus from new orleans la seven white males and females combined entered this city and county. . . . these subjects have been constantly under surveillance since their arrival by officers this department. they have mailed two letters since their arrival. It was clear from the wire and from typed reports written in subsequent days by investigators of the Sov-Com that the desk clerk at the Eola Hotel had listened in on the group's phone calls and had reported to the sheriff. It was clear the postmaster was in on it, and so, too, the editor of the local newspaper, with whom the travelers naively thought they might arrange an appointment. subjects told desk clerk at local hotel that they was exchange students touring the country to find out all local customs prior to their shipment to overseas countries, the wire said. The authorities in Jackson wired back to Billy: ok will advise all consern. The collegians and their teachers left town on a bus the next morning. They were headed toward Little Rock, Arkansas, via Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was known they intended to stay at either the Albert Pike or the Marion Hotel in Little Rock. The constabularies up there would be alerted that a Barbara Wexler (w/f, address 14 grange lane, levittown, new york) and a Gail Yenkinson (w/fm, same add) and an Emilio Rivera (same add and supposed to be a proffessor at this college), along with the others, were on their nosy way.

No one told this story at Billy Ferrell's wake and funeral; no one trotted out an old and semi-inconsequential document from the recently declassified files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. That would have been a rude and inexcusable thing. And yet such documents existed, by the fistful, available for anybody's reading by the time he expired. All an impertinent person in the post-totalitarian society of Mississippi would have had to do was drive over to Jackson, park his or her car, walk past the monument to the Confederate dead out front of the Department of Archives and History, near the State Capitol, across State Street from the big sign that says welcome to downtown jackson. best of the new south. All he or she would've needed to do was enter a room on the first floor and fill out a brief application and log on to a Hewlett-Packard Vectra XM2 computer. Soon as the nosy soul started punching up "William T. Ferrell" or "Ferrell, Billy," he or she would start to come on all sorts of interesting if essentially unsurprising items from thirty and forty years back-not evidence of murder or outright brutality, no; just greater or lesser little bigotries and incontestable evidences of a general mind-set, such as this one, for instance: "Sheriff Billy Ferrell agreed to furnish the Chief of Police with the names of the negroes who had been participating in the afore mentioned activities, and also to begin a file at once in keeping records and names of any known agitators or any would-be agitators in his county and to keep us advised on current activities. The other Sheriffs likewise agreed to do the same."

In their retirement, the high sheriff and his wife had traveled some and generally enjoyed it. They had a motor home, until they sold it in 1996, and wondered afterward why they did. They'd gotten as far north as Edmonton, Alberta, gasping at the Canadian Rockies and the rest of the Lord's handiwork up there. Billy would do the driving, his only requirement being that Hazel and her sister-who'd be in the back, yakking-kept a pot of fresh coffee going for him at all times. One of their favorite destination spots was Branson, Missouri, where Las Vegas-like country music extravaganzas are based. Once they saw an eleven- or twelve-year-old kid in a spangled suit impersonating Elvis, damnedest thing you could imagine. Mickey Gilley, the big country star, had his own show and restaurant in Branson. He was from Ferriday, down near home, and he and Hazel were something like third cousins maybe a time or two removed. Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis and the great TV preacher Jimmy Swaggart (you know: the one who'd taken illicit female flesh but wept for the nation's forgiveness) were all Louisiana boys and first cousins and performers who'd done well in the fame and loot department. More than once Billy and Hazel got to sit down with Gilley in his restaurant and have a drink with him and get some free show tickets. One time, Hazel carted up to Missouri a box of decorative golf balls from Gilley's old high school golf coach in Ferriday. He'd treated the two of them just like kin.

These years in semiexile on the Louisiana side of the river were comfortable and pleasant and full of respect, given what a man had accomplished in his life. But they were also flat and tedious years. Just not enough laving light. Billy was a man without hobbies. He'd always been the sheriff. Too often he'd just sit and remember, stare hard. In a more jovial mood, he'd tell cronies in town he'd gone to work for "Honey-Do." Honey, do this. Honey, do that.

In 1992, Natchez made him Santa for the annual Christmas parade, a coveted honor, and there was Billy, third car in the procession, red suit, riding through the neighborhoods in a top-down convertible, waving, tossing candies to black and white kiddies alike. Hazel framed the official parade invitation: "Santa and Mrs. William T. Ferrell Sr. . . ."

From the Hardcover edition.

Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times

This, then, is a beautiful, poetic book about an ugly time in America's South. It's been a long time since I have been so moved. — Karl Fleming

The Washington Post

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. — Dan T. Carter

Publishers Weekly

"Nothing is ever escaped," is the woeful reminder Hendrickson imparts in this magisterial group biography-cum-social history, a powerful, unsettling, and beautifully told account of Mississippi's still painful past. Hendrickson, author of the searching Robert McNamara chronicle The Living and the Dead (an NBA finalist), sets out to profile seven Mississippi sheriffs photographed while one of their number postures with a billy club just before the 1962 riots against the integration of the University of Mississippi at Oxford ("Ole Miss"). The picture, shot by freelance photographer Charlie Moore, was published in Life magazine soon after, and it captured Hendrickson's imagination when he came upon it decades later. Chapter by chapter, Hendrickson reconstructs the everyday existences of the seven sheriffs, concentrating on the time of the photo, but taking his subjects through to their deaths. None are now living, but Hendrickson interviewed former Natchez sheriff John Ed Cothram in the early '90s, and the Cothram chapters comprise a paradigmatically subtle and eerie portrait of the intelligence and banality of evil, and how it destroys individuals. The number of telling quotes, interviews with friends and family, primary and secondary sources, allusions to art and history, and gut reactions Hendrickson offers are what really make the book. He begins with a wrenching retelling of the Emmett Till lynching-seven years before James Meredith fought for and finally won admission to Ole Miss, a bloody story Hendrickson also recounts (in addition to a fascinating recent interview with Meredith himself). The book's final third tries to get at the legacy of Mississippi's particular brand of segregation-the whites and blacks Hendrickson interviews throughout articulate it masterfully-by profiling the children of the men in the photo and of Meredith, with sad and inconclusive results. While Hendrickson can be intrusive in telling readers how to interpret his subjects, he repeatedly comes up with electric interview material, and deftly places these men within the defining events of their times, when "a 100-year-old way of life was cracking beneath them." (Mar. 24) Forecast: Fallout from Trent Lott's remarks have refocused national attention on Mississippi, evidenced by a spate of recent New York Times articles on the state of the State. This hybrid "whiteness studies" style analysis offers some answers to the "whys" of Lott's remarks, and its 50,000 copy first printing anticipates a stint on the bestseller list, and major award nominations. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.


By focusing on a famous photo of seven Southern sheriffs during the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, Hendrickson captures what Southern life was like during that era. People too young to remember and those who experienced it from near or far will come away with a much more complete understanding of what made these men tick and the ramifications of the act of one brave young man, James Meredith, on the modern history of America. Hendrickson is a noted journalist, author and professor, who is able to extrapolate from the stories of those involved a sense of what it was like to live in those times, as a sheriff, an African American, a Southerner and an American. He also shows how the lives of our fathers affect the lives of their children, even in adulthood. The book has an excellent "bibliographical essay," which explains how the author acquired his information, and a complete index. The writing is compelling, but the typeface is small and a little difficult to read. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 343p. illus. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss

Library Journal

Hendrickson (The Living and the Dead) uses a photograph published in the July 1962 Life magazine as a focus for examining race and racism in late 20th-century American society. The picture, taken in Oxford, MI, by Charles Moore, centers on seven white law enforcement officers. One, Sheriff Billy Ferrell, holds a billy club, while the other four look on smiling. These men were called to Oxford with others to curb anticipated violence accompanying the integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith. All seven participated in the riots that left two people dead and hundreds injured. Hendrickson uses the lives of these men to explore Southern racial attitudes of the period, giving us biographies of photographer Moore and of Meredith, whose interesting life since has included working as an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms. Hendrickson then extends the study to examine contemporary racial views through portraits of the lawmen's grandchildren and Meredith's son, Joe. Hendrickson uses a large number of interviews as well as archival materials and periodical literature to create a thoughtful and illuminating portrait of American racial attitudes. Highly recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/02.]-Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Parkesburg Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews

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 togather 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. First printing of 50,000

Readers' Reviews

Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

Book Info

  • Book Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13: 9780641846205
  • ISBN-10: 0641846207
  • Number of Pages: 368
  • Dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)
  • Approx Price: $1.99
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