Price, United States v. 383 U.S. 787 (1966)

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PRICE, UNITED STATES v. 383 U.S. 787 (1966)

Eighteen defendants implicated in the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi challenged the indictments against them under the federal civil rights act of 1866 and that of 1870. One act applied only to persons conspiring to violate any federally protected right, the other only to persons acting "under color of law " who willfully violated such rights. Previous decisions of the Supreme Court had limited the two statutes. "Under color of law" covered only officers and in effect meant state action, thus excluding private persons from prosecution. The language of the conspiracy statute notwithstanding, the Court had previously applied it to protect only the narrow class of rights that Congress could, apart from the fourteenth amendment, protect against private individuals' interference, thus excluding the bulk of civil rights. Justice abe fortas for a unanimous Court ruled that when private persons act in concert with state officials they all act under color of law, because they willfully participate in the prohibited activity (deprivation of life without due process of law) with the state or its agents. Fortas also ruled that the 1870 act meant what it said: it safeguarded all federally protected rights secured by the supreme law of the land. By remanding the cases for trial, the Court made possible the first conviction in a federal prosecution for a civil rights murder in the South since reconstruction.

Leonard W. Levy

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Price, United States v. 383 U.S. 787 (1966)

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