Cecil Price settles up
May 13, 2001
For Cecil Price, Sr., the prosecution has rested now and the verdict lies in the hands of a higher court. But the murder case that defined and consumed his life is far from over.
Or at least, it shouldn't be over.
Sunday, the bell tolled for Price and his accounts were settled. The grinning, baby-faced Neshoba County chief deputy sheriff familiar to most of America from a single black-and-white photograph that captured him as a young man seated next to a tobacco-chewing sheriff and in front of a group of
leering, jeering fellow Klansmen has long since been gone replaced by an old man who broke his skull in a fall from a cherry picker last month while trying to make a living.
Price the enigmatic surviving figure from Mississippi's most infamous officially unsolved murder case died Sunday at University Medical Center of those injuries. His death perhaps dooms any effort to finally prosecute that murder case in state court.
But to report his death only in that context ignores the crux of Mississippi's burden in finding a measure of justice now some 37 years after injustice reigned in this state. It is easy to deal with Cecil Price as the caricature of a potbellied, bad-tempered Southern lawman that he apparently was at the age of 27 when Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chancy were murdered on his watch on June 21, 1964, in Neshoba County, Mississippi.
The hard part is dealing with Cecil Price as a man as a fellow Mississippian caught up in the insanity and rage of race and politics in this state in the 1950s and 1960s. There were at least 10,000 registered Klansmen in Mississippi in 1964. The white-collar crowd gravitated to the Citizens Councils.
Price wasn't unique in the 10,000. He was a husband and father and later a grandfather. Over the course of his life, law enforcement had been only a brief interlude in his working life. Prior to putting on the badge, Price had been a dairy supply salesman and a fireman. After forfeiting that deputy's badge, he worked as a surveyor, a truck driver, a jeweler, a contract commercial drivers license instructor and, at the time of his death, at an equipment rental company in Philadelphia.
Like so many Neshoba Countians, I knew Cecil Price both as a man and as that caricature. I knew him as the focus of a college course in constitutional law that made "U.S. v Price, et al." an analytical study of a lynch mob run amok in the county of my birth. I also knew him as the father of a school mate, as an ex-con who had served his time and as man carrying what seemed to be an interminable weight.
Should Price have stood trial on state murder charges for his role in the cold-blooded murders of the three civil rights workers? Absolutely. The spilled blood of three murdered youths still cries out for justice and the rule of law in Mississippi.
But for anyone to suggest that Price never suffered for his crime beyond the six-year federal prison term is absurd in the extreme.
From the time he returned to Neshoba County in 1974 from the FCI Sandstone, MN, Price lived the rest of his life like an insect on a pin under the scrutiny of entomologists. His family suffered with him.
There were the books, the documentaries, the television movies, the feature films and the anniversary news stories that culminated in the 1988 Orion Pictures film "Mississippi Burning" which featured an absolutely contrived plot line which held that the FBI solved the case because of less than subtle hint of a romance between Price's wife, Conner, and a Mississippi FBI agent.
There remain some in Mississippi who would defend Cecil Price for his actions in the 1960s and who delight in the fact that he through death has now escaped state prosecution for his crimes.
There are others likely breathing sighs of relief that Price is no longer a threat to them as a witness in any state trial that might come in the Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney case.
March of time
Death is methodically claiming the men federal prosecutor John Doar made a compelling federal conspiracy case against in 1967 for their involvement in the Neshoba murders. The march of time threatens to make any state prosecution a moot point.
Doar argued that Ku Klux Klan leaders Sam Bowers and Edgar Ray Killen were at the root of the plot to kill the three civil rights workers. He argued that Killen influenced Price in his actions in the case.
A Mississippi jury in 1967 found Price and Bowers guilty of conspiracy. That same jury could not reach a verdict in the case of Edgar Ray Killen on the same charge and Killen remains officially and legally unblemished by the events of June 21, 1964.
Mississippi in recent years has found a measure of justice in the murders of Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer. Cecil Price has settled up. He is beyond the grasp of either his friends or his detractors.
It's time that the state of Mississippi finally admits in a state court that three youths were murdered by a lynch mob some 37 years ago in Neshoba County and sets about to punish the guilty no matter who they are.
Price's death sets even more clearly into focus the need to get this case in front of a Neshoba County grand jury in 2001.
Sid Salter is publisher/editor of the Scott County Times in Forest. E-mail him at salternews.aol.com.