Judge William Harold Cox presided over the 1967 trial of the men accused of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers that became a turning point in the struggle for racial equality in the South. Born in Indianola on 23 June 1901, Cox attended the University of Mississippi, where he roomed with future US senator James Eastland before receiving bachelor’s and law degrees in 1924. Cox practiced corporate and civil law until Pres. John F. Kennedy nominated him to serve as US district court judge for the Southern District of Mississippi. The US Senate confirmed him on 27 June 1961 and he took his oath of office three days later. Cox served as chief judge from 1962 to 1971 and took senior status on 4 October 1982.
Cox became known for his rulings that slowed down the federal government’s attempts to integrate the South, though those rulings were repeatedly overruled on appeal. In 1964 he called a group of black witnesses “a bunch of chimpanzees,” a statement that caused Sen. Jacob Javits of New York and Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey to attempt to impeach the judge.
On 21 June 1964 Neshoba County deputy sheriff Cecil Ray Price arrested civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, on speeding charges. They paid a fine and were released later that night but subsequently disappeared. Their bodies were found buried in a Neshoba County dam the following August. Price had handed the three men over to members of the Ku Klux Klan, who shot and killed the workers. Since the chances of getting justice in the state courts of Mississippi were virtually nonexistent, a federal grand jury indicted eighteen men implicated in the killings on charges related to nineteenth-century civil rights statutes. Judge Cox dismissed the felony indictments on the grounds that murder did not fall within the federal court’s jurisdiction, though he allowed misdemeanor charges to stand against Price, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, and patrolman Richard Willis because they were the only suspects who allegedly acted “under color of law,” a requirement for federal jurisdiction.
The US Supreme Court unanimously reversed Cox’s ruling and reinstated the indictments against all of the defendants. Judge Cox then presided over their October 1967 trial before an all-white jury of five men and seven women. Defense attorneys assumed that Cox was their ally, but he “conducted the trial with scrupulous fairness.” When a defense attorney asked a witness whether Schwerner sought “to get young male Negroes to sign a pledge to rape a white woman once a week during the hot summer of 1964,” Cox said that he considered such a question “highly improper” and that he would not “allow farce to be made of this trial.” After the jury found seven of the defendants guilty, Cox sentenced them to between three and ten years in jail. Cox declared a mistrial for the rest of the defendants, including Edgar Ray Killen, who in 2005 was convicted of planning and directing the murders. Judge Cox died in 1988.
- Biographical Directory of the Federal Judiciary, 1789–2000 (2001)
- Federal Judicial Center website, www.fjc.gov
- United States v. Price (1966)