Jewish legal scholar’s memoir recalls 1970s sojourn from the Bronx to Mississippi

Published 3:38 pm Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Professor Howard Ball, the distinguished political science scholar, first came into my orbit on Friday, Sept. 10, 1976, when he was 39 and I was 17 during my senior year of high school.

The burly, bearded Ball was part of a high school football officiating crew calling a game between the Philadelphia High Tornadoes and the Neshoba Central Rockets. I was a PHS lineman in that game.

“Where did this Yankee ref come from?” I thought, along with many of my teammates. It was a rivalry game, hard fought and always on the edge of becoming a brawl. Ball kept control of the game, physically interposing himself between post-whistle combatants and making it clear who was in charge on the field.

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Fast forward three years to the 1979 Spring semester at Mississippi State University.

The professor arrived that first day to teach PS 3073 Constitutional Law, wrote his name on the blackboard, and I instantly recognized the voice — the Yankee ref. I soon learned that he was as much in control in the classroom as he had been on the gridiron.

Dr. Ball is a great teacher. As he had been as a football referee, he was tough but fair. I learned more in the one semester about topics that would serve me for a lifetime in journalism — and I was prepared to cover legal proceedings at the local, state and federal appellate level.

In his class, I learned through assignments he called “hypotheticals” to write persuasive essays that were patterned after judicial decisions. “I don’t care which side of the issue you argue but base your arguments on the Constitution and case law precedents,” Ball insisted.

The lessons learned in Dr. Ball’s class have been of lifelong benefit. My friendship with him has likewise been constant over the ensuing 43 years. The story of how he came from his Bronx, New York, upbringing to live and teach in Mississippi is a story worth hearing.

Now at age 83, Ball has decided to share that tale in a new memoir released this month by the University of Notre Dame Press entitled “Taking the Fight South: Chronicle of a Jew’s Battle for Civil Rights in Mississippi” (University of Notre Dame Press, $32, 200 pages).

After earning his undergraduate degree in 1960 from City College of New York, Ball earned Master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Rutgers University. His teaching journey took him from Hofstra University to MSU to the University of Utah, then to the University of Vermont, where he remains a professor emeritus of political science.

His academic interests have been in civil liberties, civil rights, constitutional law and American government. Ball is the author or co-author of more than 30 scholarly books about the law and the U.S. Constitution — including highly regarded biographies of Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas and two books on the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in my hometown of Philadelphia in Neshoba County.

“Murder in Mississippi: United States v. Price and the Struggle for Civil Rights” in 2004 and the companion “Justice in Mississippi: The Murder Trial of Edgar Ray Killen” in 2006 chronicle the milestone civil rights crimes from the standpoints of both constitutional law and from the emotional perspective of a lifelong champion for civil rights and equality who never understood the misguided hatred and fear that fueled them.

Ball’s “Taking the Fight South” memoir focuses on the six years he spent in Mississippi from 1976 to 1982. As a proud Jew in a heavily Protestant enclave, Ball ignored the counsel of friends and family who advised against leaving Hofstra for MSU with his wife, Carol, and three young daughters.

In Starkville in the mid-1970s, Ball was neither quiet nor did he try to “fit in” as he worked to integrate the local Girl Scout Troop, was active in the Mississippi Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and testified before Congress in support of extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

During his Mississippi sojourn, Ball encountered racism, religious slurs and slights, and redneck attempts at intimidation. Yet he also made lifelong friends among Southerners on the MSU faculty like political scientist Bill Giles and the late historian Charles Lowery — both highly intelligent men of stout hearts and good courage.

Ball’s third book as an interloper in the Deep South is poignant, enlightening, and serves as a reminder of how far Mississippi has come and yet how far we still have to go.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at