Price and Bowers Trial: 1967

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Price and Bowers Trial: 1967

Defendants: Cecil Price and Sam Bowers, Jr.
Crimes Charged: Conspiracy to violate civil rights
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clayton Lewis, H.C. Watkins, and Laurel Weir
Chief prosecutors: John Doar, Robert Hauberg, and Robert Owen
Judge: William Harold Cox
Place: Meridian, Mississippi
Dates of trial: October 7-20, 1967
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Bowers, 10 years imprisonment; Price, 6 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: This trial's historic outcome marked a turning point in the long and often bloody struggle for civil rights that bedeviled Mississippi in the 1960s.

On the morning of June 21, 1964, two committed civil rights campaigners, Michael Schwerner and James Chayney, drove into Neshoba county, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a church. With them was Andrew Goodman, an anthropology major who had arrived from New York the previous day. That afternoon the trio was arrested for speeding just outside the small town of Philadelphia by local sheriff's deputy Cecil Price. Around 10:00 p.m., after paying a $25 fine, they were released. All three then disappeared. Forty-four days later, following massive federal intervention, their murdered bodies were recovered from beneath a dam.

It soon became clear that a gang made up of local police officers and Ku Klux Klan members had carried out the killings. Equally obvious was the fact that chances of obtaining murder convictions were nonexistent. For this reason the federal government chose to proceed against those implicated on lesser charges of violation of civil rights. When the trial finally came to court 17 men were under indictment, but public attention had concentrated on just two:, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and local KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, Jr.

After three years of delays, the trial opened on October 7, 1967. The prosecution team led by the U.S. Justice Department's head civil rights attorney, John Doar, looked positively skimpy when arrayed against no less than a dozen defense attorneys, but the Justice Department case was damning. Doar contended that, while the three men were still in his custody, Price had contacted local KKK members under Bowers' leadership, and that a carefully orchestrated ambush was put into effect. After their release, Schwerner, Chayney and Goodman were again stopped on the highway by Price, who then delivered them into the hands of his co-conspirators. One of those present, James Jordan, testifying for the prosecution, described how all three men were gunned down, then dumped into a prepared grave, which was bulldozed over.

Defense Tactics Fail

The defense's key strategy, made plain from the outset, centered around an attempt to enlist the sympathy of Judge William Cox, whose record on civil rights was less than exemplary. Their constant maneuvering for a postponement or mistrial, however, drew this stern rebuke from the judge: "I don't want this to be a pattern for this trial, gentlemen, because we are not going to have a big show out of this case. I don't run a court like that. We are going to try this case, we are going to get rid of it. It's not going to be interminable, so you can just get that out of your minds." Judge Cox's words sent a chill across the defense table as, perhaps for the first time, the accused realized that they might actually be convicted.

Another major miscalculation came when defense attorney Laurel Weir, cross-examining a prosecution witness, the Reverend Charles Johnson, asked if it was true that he [Johnson] and Schwerner had tried to "get young Negro males to sign statements that they would rape one white woman a week during the hot summer of 1964 here in Mississippi." Cox angrily interrupted, saying he found the question "highly improperI'm not going to allow a farce to be made of this trial and everybody might as well get that through heads, including every one of the defendants."

Delmar Dennis, another renegade Klansman, testified that Bowers bragged to other Klan members of his involvement in the Neshoba killings, crowing: "It was the first time that Christians had planned and carried out the execution of a Jew." Dennis also provided details of a loosely coded letter written by Bowers, in which he had attempted to cover up details of the killings. But perhaps Dennis' most startling revelation came when he identified one of the defense attorneys, Clayton Lewis, as a Klan sympathizer. Laurel Weir's vociferous demands for a mistrial were overruled by Judge Cox.

In closing arguments Doar assured the jurors that "the federal government is not invading Philadelphia or Neshoba Country [but rather] these defendants are tried for a crime under federal law in a Mississippi city, before a Mississippi federal judge, in Mississippi courtroom, before twelve men and women from the state of Mississippi." This was a shrewd move on Doar's part. Throughout the trial he had wisely avoided turning this case into an indictment of the state: he knew his best chance of victory lay in appealing to sound common sense. Then he reminded the jurors:

This was a calculated, cold blooded plot. Three men, hardly more than boys, were the victims. The plot was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness equal to the wickedness with which it was planned.

Answering defense complaints that the turncoat Klansmen had been paid sums of money by the government to testify, Doar commented that such actions were necessary on occasion. As he put it, "Midnight murder in the rural area of Neshoba County provides few witnesses."

By contrast, defense attorney, H.C. Watkins excoriated the paid informers, then attempted to blacken the character and intentions of Schwerner, Chayney and Goodman:

It well be that these young men were sacrificed by their own kin for publicity. So far as I have been able to determine, they had no authority to be in Neshoba County. They broke the laws of that county by speeding and they violated the American Constitution by messing in local affairs in a local community. Mississippians rightfully resent some hairy beatnik from another state visiting our state with hate and defying our people.

Jury Reaches Tough Decision

On October 18 the case went to the jury. After a day they declared themselves deadlocked, but Judge Cox refused to declare a mistrial and ordered a return to deliberations, reminding them of the expense of another trial and the necessity for them to reach a verdict. The admonishment worked. On October 20 the jury found Price and Bowers and five other defendants guilty. They could reach no verdict against four other defendants; the remainder were acquitted.

Announcing himself in complete agreement with the verdicts, Judge Cox set December 29 as sentencing day. At that time he imposed a 10-year jail term on Bowers, and six years for Price. The other convicted men received sentences of 3-10 years.

History had been made. For the first time a Mississippi jury had convicted white officials and Klansmen of crimes against black people or civil rights workers. In 1988, these events were captured in the movie Mississippi Burning. While the factual accuracy of the film was often called into question, few doubted that its searing portrayal of bigotry and blind hatred was anything other than authentic.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Blaustein, Albert P. and Robert L. Zangrando. Civil Rights And The American Negro. New York: Trident, 1968.

Cagin, Seth and Philip Dray. We Are Not Afraid. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Huie, William Bradford. Three Lives For Mississipppi. New York:

Kornbluth, Jesse, "The Struggle Continues." New York Times Magazine (July 23, 1989): 16ff.