Few episodes in the modern civil rights movement were more galvanizing or more memorialized than the brutal murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney - idealists eager to protect and promote the rights of black Americans, even in the deep and very dangerous South. In films like Mississippi Burning and popular folk songs, these young men have been venerated as martyrs. Even so, the landmark legal dimensions of their murder case have until now remained largely lost. Howard Ball reminds us just how problematic the prosecution of the murderers - all members of the KKK - actually was. When the State of Mississippi failed to indict them, the U.S. tried to prosecute the case in federal district court. The judge there, however, ruled that the federal government had no jurisdiction and so dismissed the case. When the U.S. appealed, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower court decision, claiming that federal authorities did indeed have the power to police civil rights violations in any state. United States v. Price (1967) thus produced a landmark decision that signaled a seismic shift in American legal history and race relations.
Howard Ball, presently professor of law at Vermont Law School and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont, is a veteran of the civil rights movement and for many years taught at Mississippi State University. He is the author of two dozen books including The Bakke Case: Race, Education, and Affirmative Action (see page 51) and A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America.