In United States v. Price (1966), the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protects individuals against state action and that the federal government has jurisdiction to prosecute any violations of the amendment. In making this landmark decision, the Court made clear that federal authorities could step in when state and local authorities refused to prosecute individuals who committed civil rights violations.
The case arose after civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were kidnapped, assaulted, and then murdered by a gang of eighteen men, including deputy sheriff Cecil Ray Price, in Neshoba County, Mississippi, during the summer of 1964. When the State of Mississippi failed to indict the eighteen men, all of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan, for the murders, US officials brought charges against the men in federal court for violating the victims’ due process rights. A district judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the federal government lacked jurisdiction, and the United States appealed to the US Supreme Court.
The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Abe Fortas, began by considering the scope of 18 USC sec. 242, which prohibits any individual from willfully depriving any person of any right, privilege, or immunity secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. The defendants were charged with substantive violations of sec. 242 for depriving Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman of due process. The district court had ruled that only Price and two other police officers were subject to this charge since the other fifteen defendants were not acting “under color of law.”
The US Supreme Court disagreed, holding that “private persons, jointly engaged with state officials in the prohibited action, are acting ‘under color’ of law for purposes of [sec. 242]. To act ‘under color’ of law does not require that the accused be an officer of the state. It is enough that he is a willful participant in a joint activity with the State or its agents.” State officers had participated in every phase of the action, and the court ruled that anyone who had taken advantage of the state officers’ participation had to be held accountable. Thus, all of the private defendants were “indictable as a principle acting under color of law.”
The court then addressed the applicability of 18 USC sec. 241, which prohibited two or more people from conspiring to “injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” The district court had dismissed the charge against all eighteen defendants, holding that sec. 241 “did not include rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Supreme Court again disagreed, holding that Fourteenth Amendment rights are protected under sec. 241; that as in the analysis of sec. 242, the Fourteenth Amendment protects individuals against state action; and that all eighteen defendants were acting under color of law. Therefore, the indictments against all eighteen defendants for violation of both secs. 242 and 241 were proper. With this decision, the Supreme Court made clear that “the federal government would no longer tolerate the complicity of local and state authorities in the suppression of the constitutional rights of southern blacks.”
In 1967, an all-white jury, including a former member of the Klan, convicted seven of the eighteen defendants and sentenced them to between three and ten years in prison. Eight of the defendants were acquitted, and the jury reached no verdict on the remaining three, including Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher suspected of organizing the assault and murder. The film Mississippi Burning (1988) offered a fictionalized version of this trial.
Around the turn of the twenty-first century, the State of Mississippi reopened some of the cases involving civil rights violations that it had failed to prosecute four decades earlier. As part of this effort, Killen was convicted in 2005 of manslaughter in the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman and sentenced to three twenty-year terms in prison.
- Howard Ball, Murder in Mississippi: United States v. Price and the Struggle for Civil Rights (2004)
- Douglas O. Linder, Mississippi Law Journal 72 (2002–3)
- United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787 (1966)