In Sons of Mississippi, Paul Hendrickson provides a startling history of the state of Mississippi.
So how long does it take to get captivated by a photograph and then go to Mississippi, get terrific interview material and reconcile it with 40 years of U.S. cultural history?
[Laughs.] Five years. I went to Mississippi for an exploratory trip in 1996. When I started in earnest in '97, I was still working at the Washington Post [where Hendrickson was on staff for 23 years] and didn't take a leave until '99. So between '97 and '99 I worked on it as I could, full time in '99—but this is 2003. So it was roughly five years to get to the first draft.
The idea for the book really came while standing in a bookstore?
Yes, it was standing in Berkeley, California's Black Oak Books and being riveted to that photograph, and not quite understanding it, and thinking "I might be able to tell a less seen side of the history of civil rights in America in seven stories, in seven frames"—that is, the seven faces in the photograph. It took a little while, and many conversations with Jon Segal at Knopf, my editor all the way through on all of these books [including The Living and the Dead], to understand that the true direction of the story was to come this way. He encapsulated it in a single word when he said "legacies." And that put the bulb on in my head that said: "It's about these guys, but it's really about what they passed on to their kids and their grandkids."
There's a strong visual current in the book, where your words and those of other authors seem to combine into very precise descriptions of people and places.
I grew up in the Midwest, and in my town of Kankakee, Illinois, there were two Frank Lloyd Wright houses that I used to pass by on my paper route. And I didn't understand those houses. They were bizarre, but something about them attracted me, and all these years later I'm an intense student of architecture and of Wright. When I teach journalism, I try to think about the principle of organic writing, which is part of what Wright was about. So maybe in looking at this photograph, it was important to me to try to understand things about American artists, and make some kind of crossover. I also find that I've read a lot of poetry in my life, and that has worked its way into this and the other books, along with artists like Edward Hopper.
Kankakee is downstate Illinois, and the book discusses your cousin's murder in nearby Kentucky, as an adult, by a black man. Is this part of what you as narrator of the book are trying to understand?
Your own tensions of the story come in when they're germane and germane only. I felt on some fundamental level it was honest, if I was going to engage the subject, to think about my own situation. And that event is certainly part of it. But other personal reflections in the book come, directly or indirectly, out of the fact that those guys in the photograph are white, and that's the color I am, and one of the things I'm trying to look at in this book is "how many steps removed am I from the men in this photograph."
The book focuses on Mississippi's elected sheriffs, now and in the '60s, and even shows them in contact with Senator Trent Lott. To what degree does the book find the state's people and its elected officials still entrenched in a kind of 'separate but equal' thinking?
One of the men I interview says, "We've changed the laws, but have we changed people's hearts?" Often Mississippi to me at least still seems like a nation of strangers. In that small town of Greenwood, [blacks and whites] are divided across that small river just a few blocks from each other, but the gulf is still so wide. James Meredith and his son Joe say in the book that it may even be more vicious now, because it's largely unseen. That's pretty strong, but the notion of 'separate' is what describes it best. Yet, despite having met all these people and having all these feelings about it, I am still in some fundamental sense the Yankee carpetbagger who has come down to understand Mississippi. Am I any kind of "seer"? Do I go down to Mississippi and "understand"? Hell, no.