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Sons of Mississippi, A Story of Race and Its Legacy

June 8, 2003, Sunday

Sins of the Fathers By Brent Staples

A Story of Race and Its Legacy. By Paul Hendrickson. Illustrated. 343 pp.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $26.

MY great-grandfather John Wesley Staples (1865-1940) was conceived on a Virginia plantation in the waning days of the Civil War and narrowly missed being born a slave. The family moved swiftly from the shadows of bondage into the free, land-holding classes. John Wesley and his wife, Eliza, were already successful farmers by the late 1890's. By the turn of the 20th century, they and their in-laws had hired a teacher and built the one-room school where my great-aunts and -uncles were educated. My father's generation grew up in regular contact with former slaves and gave birth to my generation, which included the first college graduates in the family line. I missed meeting John Wesley, though not by much. Had he lived even a decade longer, he would have held in his arms the great-grandchild who grew up to write these words.

My family's transit from slavery into the college-going middle class would have been considerably more difficult -- if not impossible -- had we been from the Mississippi cotton belt. The constitutional amendment that put an official end to slavery in 1865 had little impact in the cotton-growing Mississippi Delta, where black people continued to live as de facto slaves for another 100 years.

Freedom workers who toured Mississippi in the late 50's and early 60's encountered ostensibly free black people toiling for slave wages in the same fields where their ancestors had picked cotton centuries earlier. Black Mississippians outnumbered their white masters and mistresses by a margin as much as 4 to 1 in some counties. Yet there were entire counties where not a single black person was registered to vote and not a single black name could be found in the jury pool. The state kept it that way by sanctioning violence against black people who got above themselves by agitating for the vote, talking back to white folks or failing to give way on the sidewalk.

The reign of violence that had long been endemic to Mississippi burst into the national awareness in the summer of 1955, when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, was beaten beyond recognition and then murdered for allegedly wolf- whistling at a white woman. The case would have passed unnoticed into history had Till's mother not been an eloquent, resourceful woman who called every newspaper reporter she could find, setting the stage for what David Halberstam has called the first ''media event of the civil rights era.''

Paul Hendrickson, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is correct when he says in ''Sons of Mississippi'' that ''every Mississippi story sooner or later touches this one.'' The killers were predictably acquitted by an all-white jury, but not before an elderly field hand named Mose Wright stunned white Mississippi by taking the stand and pointing out the white man who had kidnapped Till at gunpoint three days before the boy's body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River. Wright then fled the state, knowing that a black person who testified against a white man in court was as good as dead.

The other star of this trial was the sheriff, H. C. Strider, a virulent racist who had the power of life and death over black people in Tallahatchie County, where he owned 6,000 acres of downy white cotton. Strider did everything within his power to ensure that no white man was brought to justice for killing a mere black person. His habit of referring to black people as ''niggers'' on national television made him the embodiment of Southern bigotry at a time when many Americans were beginning to have qualms about government-sanctioned racism.

''Sons of Mississippi'' takes as its subject a photograph of seven Mississippi lawmen that was published in Life magazine in 1962. The picture was taken in Oxford, Miss., just before the fiery riot started by whites who tried to prevent the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. The so-called seven sheriffs picture depicts a group of men whooping it up as one of them brandishes a club, as though rehearsing for the violence that was to come.

Outside the South, the photograph became synonymous with barbarism. But even after 40 years, the moral gravity of this event has yet to fully penetrate the minds of the sheriffs' descendants. Ty Ferrell, an agent for the United States Border Patrol in Texas and the grandson of the man gripping the bat, tells Hendrickson that he kept the photograph on the wall at college and in houses where he has lived. It does not embarrass him in the least. Like other descendants of the sheriffs, Ty Ferrell sees the photograph as depicting a ''moment'' that came and went. He does not understand that the corrosive racial attitudes handed down through his forebears are still at work in his life.

Paul Hendrickson recognizes that the sheriffs were a direct legacy of slavery and that many were sadists whose bloody inclinations suited them nicely to a historically determined role. They are stereotypes for the most part, and the difficulty with writing about stereotypes is that they are one-dimensional, unchanging and therefore of limited use in the construction of narrative. To bring these stone figures to life, Hendrickson must argue that there is more to them than meets the eye -- that they were less monolithically evil than they appeared at the time. This argument fails, leaving ''Sons of Mississippi'' to claw at the surface of something that it never quite penetrates.

Hendrickson takes countermeasures as he goes along. He shifts the frame of reference, moving back and forth between a story about the power of history in people's lives to one about individual and family differences. (''How did a gene of intolerance and racial fear mutate as it passed . . . through time and family bloodstreams?'') As ''Sons of Mississippi'' wears on, we see that the author is a kind of romantic, looking for a chance to be optimistic in a situation that offers precious little to be optimistic about. Hendrickson's determination to see a glimmer of brightness is especially obvious when he encounters 83-year-old John Ed Cothran, one of the sheriffs and a contemporary of H. C. Strider, who helped pull Till's mutilated body from the Tallahatchie River. The transcript from the Till trial has long since disappeared, but news stories of the period quote Cothran saying that white people felt ''pretty mad'' about the killing and confirming on the stand that the body pulled from the river was the one identified by Mose Wright as the missing boy.

Hendrickson takes heart at the possibility that the former sheriff may have told the simple truth, even though it placed him at odds with Strider, who suggested that the body had been planted by the N.A.A.C.P. A man in his 80's peering into the grave seems a perfect candidate for redemption. But Cothran does not want to be redeemed in this way and protests that the papers misrepresented him.

Hendrickson still smells potential goodness in Cothran and keeps digging, this time into an old story told by a black freedom worker who claimed that Cothran once spat in his face. The published accounts turn out to be wrong; the spitting sheriff, Hendrickson discovers, was Cothran's deputy, a savage known as Big Smitty. When asked why he kept such a person on the payroll, Cothran answers with what appears to be transparent falsehood: ''Didn't know about it. Woulda fired him in a minute if I knowed any of those things.'' It seems more likely that Cothran used Big Smitty, his pit bull, to satisfy the civic appetite for violence against black people while keeping his own hands clean.

Another black Mississippi freedom worker describes the calm and civil Cothran as more dangerous than his openly violent deputy: Cothran ''was not dumb. He was smart enough to know that one day the federal government was going to turn everything around. . . . He knew what time it was, that if something happened to us somebody else would be coming.'' At this point the subtle personal differences that Hendrickson has been trying to elevate collapse into irrelevancy. What ''Sons of Mississippi'' teaches more than anything else is that stereotypes are real; what appears on the surface is often all that there is.

Brent Staples writes editorials on politics and culture for The Times and is the author of a memoir, ''Parallel Time.''

Published: 06 - 08 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 2 , Page 18

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