Author hunts ghosts of Mississippi

How do writers find the stories they tell? “Sometimes the stories find them,” says Paul Hendrickson, who has been teaching non-fiction writing in the English Department’s creative writing program since 2001.

On March 25, Hendrickson will talk about how his new book, “Sons of Mississippi,” found him. This program is part of the Penn Humanities Forum’s salute to the Year of the Book, a series that began in September and which has featured speakers exploring books as physical artifacts, as cultural currency and as sources of knowledge, devotion and passion.

Hendrickson’s journey began one day in 1995. He was a reporter on assignment in California for The Washington Post. One evening as he stood in Black Oak Books in Berkeley, idly paging through a book of photographs of the civil rights movement by Charles Moore, “I was riveted to a photograph [of seven Mississippi sheriffs, one of them gleefully brandishing a billy club] and not quite understanding it.” Before he was through, he would be back and forth to Mississippi many times, leave the Post, take up teaching, and move to Philadelphia.

Who were these seven men? What were they doing? What had they done? What did they tell their children and grandchildren about Mississippi in civil rights times? Transfixed by Moore’s picture, Hendrickson decided to find out.

The result is an almost lyrical, beautifully written book full of the light and smells and sounds of the South. At the same time, in unflinching prose, Hendrickson confronts both the reality of racism in America 40 years ago and its legacy today.

Hendrickson’s book is really a tale of two photographs. One, published in Jet in 1955, revealed the battered corpse of 14-year old Emmett Till, killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Money, Miss. It is credited with being the spark that ignited the modern civil rights movement.

The other, taken in Oxford, Miss., in September 1962, was published in Life magazine. It shows seven county sheriffs gathered on the lawn of the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) ready to defend its honor in the coming confrontation with James Meredith and the federal government.

For five years, off and on, Hendrickson traveled to Mississippi—in and out of Oxford, down to Pascagoula and Natchez and over to the Delta towns of Greenwood, Money and Itta Bena—looking at the intersection of white defiance and black determination.

Only two of the sheriffs were still alive when he started knocking on doors asking for interviews. He met their children—a sheriff like his father, the general manager of a cotton-processing mill—and grandchildren—a night-shift worker at the Home Depot. Almost no one turned him away. “Manners are very important to Southerners,” Hendrickson explains.

How does he explain the photograph’s seven-year hold on his imagination? He quotes one wag who describes it as “life imitating life.” Is it the banality of these seven white men dressed in Stetson hats and narrow-lapel suits who leer and grin and posture for one another? Or is it the implied threat that makes it so fascinating? Hendrickson says he still doesn’t know the answer, but he plans to bring the picture as it appeared in Life with him to his talk and let people decide for themselves.

Is there hope that the stain of racism will be washed away in succeeding generations? Hendrickson isn’t sure. The contradictions are embodied in his favorite person in the book, John Ed Cothran, grandson and namesake of the former sheriff of Greenwood from 1960 to 1964.

Hendrickson describes him in a chapter titled “Sometimes Trashy, Sometimes Luminous.” He seems the classic “good ole boy” spitting tobacco through his teeth, yet he struggles with his prejudices, and in that Henridickson finds heroism.

In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner, Oxford’s most famous son, talked about the human heart in conflict with itself. Historian David Sansing told Hendrickson, “That’s Mississippi.”

Hendrickson will speak on “Sons of Mississippi” at the Penn Humanities Forum, 3619 Locust Walk, on March 25. See “What’s On.”

Originally published on March 20, 2003