Two of those men were still alive when Hendrickson started the project; all of them are well remembered by family, friends, and colleagues. One of the deceased, the former sheriff of Pascagoula–alcoholic, viciously bigoted, and beloved of his men–has an FBI file on him big enough, yet maddeningly inconclusive enough (full of “redactions” pointing all the way to J. Edgar Hoover) to be the stuff of legend. For more than one of them, Hendrickson unearths evidence of Klan and Klan-related activities, though he’s unable to prove anything, and none can be linked directly to any civil-rights crime.
But as Hendrickson states at the outset, his book isn’t really about the men in the photograph. “Instead,” he writes, “it’s about what’s deeply connected but is off the page, out of sight, past the borders. It’s about what has come down from this photograph.” And so the portraits of those men are followed by longer, more intimate profiles of some of the descendants, those he calls “the inheritors,” in whose stories he finds “some modest surprises and small redemptions and blades of latter-day racial hope.”
There’s Sheriff Tommy Ferrell, who succeeded his father as sheriff of Natchez (Adams County), keeps a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest–co-founder of the KKK–on his office wall, and has nonetheless risen to national prominence in his determination to modernize the image of Mississippi law enforcement. (And whose proud political demeanor conceals an edge of defensiveness about his father’s role in the 1960s.) There’s Tommy’s son Ty Ferrell, a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Santa Teresa, N.M.–compassionate, painfully self-conscious, prone to tears–who seems to carry around with him the entire burden of the family’s racial past. And there’s John Cothran–grandson and namesake of Sheriff John Ed Cothran of infamous Greenwood (Leflore County) in the Delta–a “working stiff” whose good heart and bad temper have left him with four broken marriages, who works as a floor manager at Home Depot and a second job stocking shelves at the Kroger supermarket to pay child support for the kids he loves, and whose ambition is a double-wide trailer in an all-white development outside Senatobia. (And yet whose humanity toward, and willingness to stand up for, his black co-workers and friends give him a shot at redemption that is neither simple nor sentimental.)
Hendrickson succeeds, movingly and compellingly, in these portraits of contemporary Southerners. But his feel for the deeper Southern past, and for the broader context of Southern politics, is less sophisticated and less satisfying. That is to say, Hendrickson gives us vivid pictures of who the men in that photograph were in 1962, and of what they passed on to their descendants, but he makes almost no effort to explain how they got that way–almost forgetting, it seems, that these men themselves were descendants, inheritors of the forces that shaped their South. Despite a central chapter in which he weaves a kind of historical essay on the events surrounding the Battle of Oxford and its aftermath, I found myself searching for some analysis of the social and political dynamics of race and class that run as an inescapable current through Southern history.
How, for example, did the poor and working-class backgrounds of these men, their lack of education, and their place within the stratified society of white Mississippi, affect their racial fear? How did white supremacism, and the populist politics of racial solidarity, offer them a kind of perverse security within that world? How did the tangled history of race and class in the Jim Crow South set the social boundaries and norms of behavior in their time and place? Hendrickson hints elusively at such questions, but fails to confront them.
Interestingly, near the outset Hendrickson uses a metaphor of bigotry as a kind of genetic inheritance. “How,” he asks, “did a gene of intolerance and racial fear mutate as it passed sinuously through time and family bloodstreams?” Only a metaphor, perhaps, but an unfortunate one: suggesting, even if inadvertently, that bigots are somehow born and not made. But history is more than the sum of family traits, and the seductions of the Southern family romance do not relieve us of the responsibility to ask tough questions about social and political realities that are all too much with us today. Just ask Trent Lott, the son of a sharecropper who scrambled his way into the warm embrace of white-supremacist Ole Miss, and whose own Southern legacy finally caught up with him.