Vol. 14 No. 4 (April 2004)

Murder in Mississippi: UNITED STATES v. PRICE and the Struggle for Civil Rights, by Howard Ball. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. 192pp. Cloth $29.95. ISBN 0-7006-1315-3. Paper $12.95. ISBN: 0-7006-1316-1.

Reviewed by Richard L. Pacelle, Jr., Department of Political Science, Georgia Southern University. Email: rpacelle@georgiasouthern.edu.

Attorneys for the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP before, and even after, BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION often had to confront hostile precedents as they prepared their arguments for the federal courts. One of their prevalent strategies in civil rights cases was to avoid abstract issues and ground their cases in reality. They wanted to engage the judges and justices in the facts of the case and the real life problems that spawned it. Howard Ball follows that strategy in this volume, which is part of the popular Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series. Ball puts very human and inhuman faces on the principals behind the UNITED STATES v. PRICE (1966) case that arose from the murders of three civil rights workers trying to register black voters in Mississippi in 1964.

The author, who lived and taught in Mississippi, brings his personal perspectives to the story. Indeed, the book has most of the elements of a fine mystery novel, except for two things: the reader already knows the unhappy ending and many of the characters would be unbelievable if they were fictitious. The diverse cast of characters lends great intrigue and includes college students, civil rights activists, attorneys, members of the Ku Klux Klan, FBI agents, Justice Department operatives, state and local officials, the Supreme Court, U.S. Senators, the president, J. Edgar Hoover, and maybe even the Mafia-allegedly recruited by the FBI to exact confessions from the suspected conspirators. This is a compelling story of bigotry, judicial power, constitutional law, Congressional power, federalism, and civil rights. The story has a variety of twists and turns that include attempts by civil rights groups, segregationists, federal, state, and local officials to control the narrative about the events, the specter of Communism and its potential influence on the civil rights activists, and the infiltration of the Klan and civil rights groups by “spies.”

All the principals in this tragedy knew that the murderers of the three civil rights activists, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goldman, and James Chaney, were certain to go unpunished in state courts. The twenty-one suspects, including Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, if they were even indicted, would truly have a jury of their peers. The question was whether a federal cause of action could be established to pursue the justice that would be denied in Mississippi courts. Under federal law, the conspirators could presumably be charged with violating the civil rights of their three victims. The maximum penalty under the law, ten years, would not be sufficient punishment, but it would be something. The problem was that the Supreme Court had gutted the legislative provisions that might permit such a cause of action in CRUIKSHANK v. UNITED STATES (1876). For a variety of moral and policy reasons, the Department of Justice intervened in the Price case. In the long run, the Justice Department needed to obtain a Supreme Court decision so it would know whether these moribund legislative provisions could be used to attack illegal actions and whether Congress would need to create additional legislative authority.

The federal government sought to make its case under 18 USC sections 241 and 242, originally passed as parts of the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and reenacted after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment as parts of the Enforcement Acts of 1870. The Supreme Court, interested in protecting civil rights, had given these provisions some vitality in SCREWS v. UNITED STATES (1945), when a police officer beat a black man in his custody, and in MONROE v. PAPE (1963), a case from Chicago that would dramatically expand the definition and the remedies for civil rights violations.

A segregationist southern federal district judge, Harold Cox, dismissed federal charges against eighteen defendants. Cox ruled that all but three of the conspirators were private citizens; therefore they were not acting under the color of state law. Only the three public officials (Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, Deputy Price, and a Philadelphia, Mississippi patrolman) could possibly be prosecuted under the act. The Department of Justice filed a petition for an expedited review by the Supreme Court. The Court refused, but docketed the case and accepted it for oral argument.

The new solicitor general, Thurgood Marshall, made this and a companion case, UNITED STATES v. GUEST, his first oral arguments to underline their importance. Marshall stood before a sympathetic Court that he would soon join. Not surprisingly, the Warren Court reversed Judge Cox, expanding the scope of sections 241 and 242 to provide the Justice Department with an important weapon. Price, of course, was a public official, but his co-conspirators were not. The Supreme Court held that when private citizens acted in concert with public officials, they were operating under the color of state law. The Court’s decision in Guest, which had different facts and a somewhat different question, was more measured. But the two decisions, in conjunction with Screws and Monroe, coupled with new legislative authority in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, represented a new arsenal for the federal government to use to protect civil rights.

Of course, when the Supreme Court makes a decision, it does not dispose of the dispute. Rather, the Court remands the case to the lower court. The government now had to go back into the federal district court and confront Judge Cox again. Newspaper reporters covering the trial expected an acquittal, but the judge and the all-white jury surprised the government, defense attorneys, and some of the defendants. Seven of the men, including Deputy Sheriff Price, were found guilty, although the person most responsible for the murders was acquitted. The punishment did not fit the crime to be sure, but like so many of the victories in the civil rights movement, the symbolic nature of the verdicts was more important than the actual results.

The book ends by bringing the story up to date to find out where the antagonists have gone almost four decades later and raises questions about whether justice was or will be served. This is a strong book and the story is riveting, but it is not without a few flaws. One is minor: there is a great deal of redundancy in the story.

The two more significant concerns are contextual. This is a story that was played out on three levels-local, state, and national. The author does an excellent job of constructing the local context that surrounded this case, and the discussion of the state environment is satisfactory. But the discussion of the national political context is not given enough attention. For instance, why did John Kennedy decide after almost three years to pay more attention to civil rights and introduce legislation; how did his assassination and the ascension of Lyndon Johnson change the dynamics of policy; what was behind the reluctance of federal authorities to exert their influence; and how did the changes in the Department of Justice influence civil rights policy making? The PRICE decision, and the civil rights movement, in general, had enormous consequences for federalism, but they are only dealt with implicitly in the book.

The final critique involves taking a step back from the story. This volume is part of the Landmark Cases Series. But is UNITED STATES v. PRICE a landmark case? By one unscientific, but frequently used measure, the answer would be no-it is not normally found in constitutional law textbooks. The author fails to make the case for PRICE as a landmark, even though that could have been done easily enough with a discussion of the constitutional or political impacts of the case. Most of the volumes in this series, including The Bakke Case also written by Ball, examine the implications of the particular landmark decision. This visceral story shows a cruel reality, worse perhaps because it occurred so recently. Readers might like to know, in the end, whether the horrible deaths of these three young men were in vain.


Ball, Howard. 2000. THE BAKKE CASE: RACE, EDUCATION, AND AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.


BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 US 483 (1954).


MONROE v. PAPE, 365 US 176 (1961).

SCREWS v. UNITED STATES, 325 US 91(1945).

UNITED STATES v. GUEST, 383 US 745 (1966).

UNITED STATES v. PRICE, 383 US 787 (1966).


Copyright 2004 by the author, Richard L. Pacelle, Jr.