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Paul Hendrickson. Sons of Mississippi: a Story of Race and Its Legacy.

Mississippi holds a peculiar place in the history of race relations in the United States. Paul Hendrickson has given us a book, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy, that explores some of this history in a remarkably personal way. Hendrickson uses the aging and sick James Meredith, the first black to integrate the University of Mississippi, to introduce the text. He shows photographs of white sheriffs to Meredith, who remarks, what ever happened to them? In this very powerful book the author attempts to show what happened to the descendants of these white supremacist law officials. Subsequently, the book moves through the lives and times of some of the key segregationists of the Civil Rights Era as a means of telling a story of legal and cultural transformation.

The State of Mississippi was well known as one of the most segregated states of the South. It is the state where some of the most violent crimes against Africans took place during the Civil Rights Era. It was here that the young Emmett Till met his death at the hands of a white mob in 1955. The mob believed that the fourteen-year-old black boy had insulted a twenty-one-year-old white store clerk named Carolyn Bryant by wolf-whistling at her. This was never proved, and though young Emmett Till from Chicago was murdered, his killers were never convicted. They lived to reap benefits from telling their stories about the murder to various magazines and news outlets. Yet Mississippi has emerged in the twenty-first century as a state with one of the highest numbers of African people in positions of leadership. Thus, the history of the state is complex to say the least.

In Mississippi, the home of Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the champions of women, African American voting rights, and justice, we see ideas, movements, and relationships that are indicative of the situation in American society generally. Mississippi is unique in the sense that it is the place where Till, Cheyney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered and where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the five "representatives" from Mississippi at the Atlantic City National Democratic Convention in August 1964. It is also the state where Medgar Evers was assassinated. Thus, Mississippi is shadowed in illusions, complicated schemes of racial privilege, and the concealment of history.

The publication of Sons of Mississippi marks a serious challenge to the concealment of the historical record. Hendrickson writes with in a deft, precise style about some of the most notorious sons of the state: Sheriff John Henry Spencer of Pittsboro, Sheriff James Ira Grimsley of Pascagoula, Sheriff Bob Waller of Hattiesburg, Sheriff Billy Ferrell of Natchez, Sheriff Jimmy Middleton of Port Gibson, Deputy Sheriff James Wesley Garrison of Oxford, and Sheriff John Ed Cothan of Greenwood.

The book is in three parts. The first part is called aptly "The Deeds of the Fathers." The second part is "Filling up the Frame," and it offers a serious examination of the legacies of James Meredith, perhaps the most famous African "son" of Mississippi. Hendrickson is particularly interested in the life and activities of Joseph Meredith, one of Meredith's sons, who is a highly intelligent and well-trained young man dealing with lupus and the rigors of getting a doctorate from the University of Mississippi, the school his father integrated. Of course, Joseph Meredith bears much of the burden of his father's history while trying to make his own. In the third part of the book, "Hopes of the Sons" Hendrickson brings the book to an optimistic end. Indeed, the final chapter is "Hope and History Rhyming."

In some ways this is an odd book because it deals mainly with men when Mississippi has had a strong presence of women such as Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer for a long time. I thought that the organizing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party should have been mentioned in connection with the history of the state through the eyes of black people. It seems common to consider the MFDP as a group of uneducated farmers or unlettered peasants, yet it was this party and these people who put their lives on the line in one of the most courageous acts of African political expression. In some respects, the acts of the mothers, particularly Fannie Lou Hamer, may be said to rival those of the black fathers, and the daughters truly are a major part of the transformation of the state.

Nevertheless, I believe that Hendrickson has demonstrated, though this was not his objective, that the movement for justice in Mississippi was accomplished without looking to the office of the President, the Congress, or the local white officials in Mississippi. In fact, effective political power was achieved by fight, the will, and the struggle of African Americans who were brave enough to confront injustice and white domination supported by white officials. The victory for justice in Mississippi was a worldwide victory for oppressed people, and it suggested that blacks in South Africa could also win their freedom and liberation. One can never underestimate the symbolic power of James Meredith's bravery in confronting the political authority of Mississippi. And Sons of Mississippi has placed the activities of the white sheriffs and the black people, as expressed by James Meredith and his family, right down front.

When you have a white elite, such as the sheriffs of Mississippi, whose main objective in politics is the perpetuation and maintenance of black subjugation, you can predict that there will eventually be an uprising. What you cannot predict, and must examine carefully, as Hendrickson has done, is what will become of their children and followers.

One might say, as the author indicates, that the attitude of the old white sheriffs toward the African American was one of warfare. The fact of the matter is that, regardless of the national pronouncements of justice, the aim of the oppressing power at the local level was to completely suppress any type of effective response from the black population. Furthermore, the sheriff's office, rather than supporting the black community, was meant to perpetuate racism through threats, violence, and intimidation. Of course, in the end, as Hendrickson knows, this could not work.

The tragedy of America is that few people know the history of this country well. In the 1960s, as blacks began a sustained political action against the white supremacists by articulating the right to vote, the white reaction was to create the White Citizens Council. These groups received money from the State of Mississippi through the Sovereignty Commission for the purpose of maintaining white supremacy. Tax money, collected from black citizens who would later be denied the use of tax money for reparations for the work of their black ancestors, was used to support the White Citizens Councils.

A number of the white officials, given responsibility for protecting and serving all the people of the state, were members of the White Citizens Council. Their sins were visited upon other generations, and though there is now a rhyming toward hope, the legacy of the fathers will be visited upon the state for a long time to come. This is an important book, written by an outstanding author, who has taken the time to give us a painstakingly clear and full account of the Sons of Mississippi. I recommend that this book be read and studied by all who believe in a common humanity.

Ama Mazama

Temple University
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Author:Mazama, Ama
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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