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Mississippi Burning: Federal Courts, Civil Rights, and U.S. v. Cecil Price
Most Americans know the federal courts played an important part in the civil rights movement through Brown v. Board of Education. The iconic Supreme Court decision serves as a key moment in school curriculums and a feature in most Americans’ understanding of the movement. In fact, civil rights movement activists and government officials brought issues related to black equality before the federal courts many times in quite diverse ways. One set of cases resulted from activists’ and federal officials’ attempts to lessen the ability of local white supremacists to use violence to restrict black civil rights with impunity through federal criminal prosecutions. One important case of this sort was United States v. Cecil Price, which came before a U.S. district court and the Supreme Court. The case occurred at a moment when the approach to protecting constitutional rights was shifting across the federal government, bringing numerous civil rights questions before the courts. A close look at the case highlights both jurisdictional differences between federal and state courts and the role of federal courts in responding to these changes.
Price stemmed from the FBI’s “Mississippi Burning” investigation, a title made famous by the movie of the same name. The case involved the prosecution of Mississippi segregationists for violating the civil rights of three murdered activists in June 1964. Understanding Price begins with Mississippi’s history and the Freedom Summer project.
Mississippi was a particularly tough target for the civil rights movement. About 45% of the state’s population was black, with many rural areas having majority black populations. Yet only about 5% of the black population was registered to vote. The average black citizen was three times poorer than the average white citizen, and 86% of black Mississippians lived below the poverty line. Inequality and white supremacy were enforced by violence that was often ignored, and thus tacitly condoned, by the state justice system. Prior to the modern civil rights movement, more lynchings occurred in Mississippi than in any other state, and these killings continued through the height of the movement. It was Mississippi that garnered national and international attention for the brutal murder of Emmett Till in the Delta region in 1955. The closely followed murder trial ended in acquittals, but the two defendants later confessed to the murders in a magazine article. The lack of convictions was emblematic of lynching’s extralegal status. Whether due to a lack of serious investigation, a dearth of charges being brought, or acquittals, only an estimated 1 percent of lynchings after 1900 resulted in criminal convictions in the United States. As civil rights activists pushed for equality, segregationists pushed back. Mississippi Ku Klux Klan membership soared, reaching more than 10,000 in 1964. The federal courts heard numerous civil rights cases during this time, many of them in Mississippi. Though the Fifth Circuit then included Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, by 1965, 83% of civil rights cases there were in Mississippi district courts.
In that year, a coalition of prominent civil rights organizations came together for the Freedom Summer project to fight for increased black voting and decreased inequality in the state. The plan was that mostly white northern college students would join local Mississippi activists for ten weeks to help black Mississippians register to vote and to set up “freedom schools” teaching young and old about political organization and topics such as black history not covered by their traditional schooling.
There was significant resistance, much of it violent, to the project. On June 16, 1964, Klan members severely beat several people attending an organizational meeting at Neshoba County’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church and then burned the church to the ground. Three young men—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—subsequently went missing. Chaney was a local African American man active in Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Schwerner, a New Yorker, was a CORE activist. Goodman, a white college student, was a Freedom Project volunteer. On June 21, the three went to survey the wreckage of the burned church in Neshoba County. On the way back to the CORE office in Meridian, Neshoba County Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Price stopped and arrested the three, allegedly for speeding, and took them to the jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Price let the three leave around 10 p.m., the last time they were seen.
The next day, the FBI sent agents from a nearby office to investigate the disappearance as a kidnapping (which fell under federal jurisdiction).
On June 23, investigators found the burned car in which the three men had been riding. Federal investigators spent the next six weeks searching rivers, woods, fields, and swamps for their bodies and talking to locals in an attempt to find out what had happened. The nation paid close attention throughout the search—unusual for the time, as was the effort to find a missing African American man and civil rights worker. In fact, investigators found the remains of eight other African American men as they searched. Two were identified as young men who had gone missing that May, reportedly at the hands of Klan members. Another one of the corpses was wearing a CORE t-shirt. Little is known about the other five. These past disappearances had neither excited much national interest nor prompted serious searches. The fact two of the missing men in the Neshoba County disappearance were white northerners was a significant factor in press attention. It was also a sign of the changing times and shifting federal role in the movement.
The black freedom movement had long worked to push the federal government to take a stronger role in protecting black civil rights and by 1964 was seeing some success. This was the summer when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed Congress with the support of Lyndon Johnson. In 1965, Congress would pass the Voting Rights Act, which was in part a response to the activism in Mississippi. The FBI investigation in Neshoba County, even as state and local authorities declined to investigate or press charges, reflected the changing landscape.
Agents finally found the bodies of the three men in an earthen dam on August 4. The FBI continued its investigation through the fall, and in December the Justice Department brought charges against twenty-one men. A look at the resulting trial highlights the shifting, and contested, role of the federal government in protecting constitutional rights of racial minorities in the United States during the 1960s. This case was a test of federal law’s reach. It also focused the jurisdictional differences between state and federal courts.
Eighteen men were indicted by a grand jury on January 15, 1965. The defendants included Price, the Neshoba County sheriff’s deputy; Sheriff Lawrence Rainey; a Philadelphia, Mississippi, police officer; and several civilians. The case came before Judge William Harold Cox of the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
John F. Kennedy had appointed Cox to the bench at the request of Mississippi Senator James Eastland, a staunch segregationist who strongly criticized the decision in Brown v. Board of Education and opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Cox had a reputation as a man who enforced strict decorum in the courtroom and was a “stickler for the points of law” as The New York Times put it. Black rights groups, however, had long objected to his record on discrimination, even calling for his removal in the past. A petition requesting he be disqualified from all such cases held that he was “ineffective on civil rights cases,” and a report about the request noted many of his past decisions on those cases had been reversed. A few months before Freedom Summer kicked off, Cox drew national attention for repeatedly referring to black activists with racial slurs in a hearing and reportedly saying they were “acting like a bunch of chimpanzees” when trying to register to vote.
The defendants were indicted on charges of conspiracy and depriving the victims of their civil rights under a Reconstruction Era Enforcement Act. In response to a defense motion, Cox dismissed most of the charges on the grounds that the alleged actions did not violate the statutes. The dismissals were appealed, bringing significant legal questions about the scope of these laws to the Supreme Court. Cox had dismissed the felony conspiracy charges for all defendants on the grounds that the statute was inapplicable to deprivations of Fourteenth Amendment rights. He had dismissed the indictment charging violations of the victims’ civil rights against the non-law-enforcement officers on the grounds that they were not officers of the state and thus were not acting under “color of law” as required by the statute. The question before the Court, then, was whether the statutes’ construction made the alleged conduct criminal.
The Supreme Court reinstated the indictments. The unanimous decision, written by Justice Abe Fortas, said private citizens could act “under color of” law when they acted with state officials in carrying out a prohibited deed. Thus, they did not themselves have to be agents of the state to violate the law. Second, the court ruled the charges did indeed include a conspiracy to violate rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and such a conspiracy constituted a violation of the statute. Specifically, the defendants, which included state officials, were accused of punishing the victims and thus depriving them of due process of law.
Justice Fortas considered the historical context and intentions of the original laws. He pointed to the Civil War and the subsequent racial violence, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which aimed to deny newly freed African Americans their constitutional rights. In passing the Civil Rights and Enforcement Acts, Congress tried to ensure the executive branch had the means to enforce new constitutional protections, as many former Confederate states resisted the new rights.
By the 1960s, Jim Crow segregation had proven to be very unequal and effective at depriving southern African Americans of many of their constitutional rights. Violence was a key tool in thwarting civil rights activists’ goals. Violence that operated without the realistic threat of prosecution was all the more effective. In that context, while most potential murder charges would be prosecuted within state courts, violence specifically aimed at depriving activists of their civil rights was a matter for the federal courts. Clarifying the government’s ability to prosecute violations of black people’s rights, Justice Fortas wrote,
The present application of the statutes at issue does not raise fundamental questions of federal-state relationships. We are here concerned with allegations which squarely and indisputably involve state action in direct violation of the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment—that no State shall deprive any person of life or liberty without due process of law. This is a direct, traditional concern of the Federal Government. It is an area in which the federal interest has existed for at least a century, and in which federal participation has intensified as part of a renewed emphasis upon civil rights.
With the indictments reinstated and the questions surrounding scope of the laws answered, the case was sent back to the district court. After another objection from the defense—claiming the grand jury was not sufficiently diverse—the prosecution asked a new grand jury for indictments, which were received, and the case went to a jury trial in 1967.
There were fears that even in a federal forum the trials would not be entirely fair, as they still took place in a segregated region with a Mississippi jury. The government’s optimism on the matter was increased by a successful motion to draw the jury pool from throughout the Southern District. The judge and selected jurors, all white, were key to this question of fairness as the trial began. On the first day, Judge Cox sharply criticized defense attorneys for asking, at the behest of one of the defendants, if one of the victims had tried to get young black men to sign pledges “to rape a young white woman once a week” during Freedom Summer. Cox asked if there was any basis for the question, deeming it “highly improper” if not. Given the attorney had none, Cox warned he would not “allow a farce to be made of this trial.” According to the memories of federal prosecutor John Doar, starting with this admonishment, Cox imposed strict discipline on the trial and ensured it was indeed a serious forum for justice.
From there, the trial proceeded through the prosecution’s evidence. The defense focused on character witnesses, tried to discredit prosecution witnesses—especially the key informant (a participant in the murders)—and provided an alibi for some defendants by shifting the timeline of events from the prosecution’s version. Initially the jury deadlocked, but Cox ordered them to continue deliberations. Ultimately, seven men were convicted of civil rights violations, including Deputy Sheriff Price but excluding Sheriff Rainey. Cox imposed sentences of four to ten years (the maximum allowed). Though justice for the men’s deaths was partial—state officials did not pursue murder charges at the time—the convictions were a victory for civil rights workers. The courts’ work in this and similar cases joined with other civil rights achievements to help decrease the use of lynchings to negate Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights. The federal courts would continue to be an important forum for resolving constitutional questions related to civil rights throughout the movement.
Christine Lamberson, Director, Federal Judicial History Office
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All quotes are from contemporaneous reporting in The New York Times. Full trial transcripts are available from the Department of Justice.
Related FJC Resources:
The FJC has more information about related federal judicial history: click to read about Judge William Harold Cox and other federal judges or another civil rights era trial Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board: The Desegregation of New Orleans Public Schools.
Hargrove, David M. Mississippi’s Federal Courts: A History. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2019.
Linder, Douglas O. “Bending Toward Justice: John Doar and the Mississippi Burning Trial.” Mississippi Law Journal 72, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 731–780.
Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Romano, Renee. Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017 (reprint edition).
This Federal Judicial Center publication was undertaken in furtherance of the Center’s statutory mission to “conduct, coordinate, and encourage programs relating to the history of the judicial branch of the United States government.” While the Center regards the content as responsible and valuable, these materials do not reflect policy or recommendations of the Board of the Federal Judicial Center.