Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

by Paul Hendrickson

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804153348
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/18/2015
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 262,693
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Paul Hendrickson, a prizewinning feature writer for the Washington Post for more than twenty years, now teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Seminary: A Search, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War (a finalist for the National Book Award). He lives with his wife and two sons in Philadelphia.

Read an 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. . . ."

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