The story of a Jew who fought for African-American rights in Mississippi

Howard Ball lived in Mississippi from 1976 to 1982, and recounts in a memoir the Jewish efforts for black voting rights in the South.

 KU KLUX KLAN members approach Huntsville, Texas to protest an execution in 2000. The book’s protagonist was harassed by the Klan.  (photo credit: ADREES A. AAL/RCS/REUTERS)
KU KLUX KLAN members approach Huntsville, Texas to protest an execution in 2000. The book’s protagonist was harassed by the Klan.
(photo credit: ADREES A. AAL/RCS/REUTERS)

Efforts by lawmakers in Texas, Georgia and elsewhere trying to suppress the minority vote, even in the face of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, have a long and sordid history, writes a political science professor and civil rights activist who lived in the American South in the 1970s and ’80s

One reason he took the job of teaching political science at Mississippi State University was to monitor the Southern states compliance with that law, writes Howard Ball, a New York city Jew who taught and lived in the Magnolia State from 1976 to 1982, in his enlightening and well-written memoir.

Like their spiritual successors 40 years later, Southern state and local leaders during that time did their best to nullify minority people’s votes. 

That law suspended acts – such as literacy tests – that had been used to disenfranchise blacks in the South. It also ordered states covered by the act to permit the US Justice Department to check any proposed modifications in their voting system to determine if the change would harm black voters.

From the beginning, the Justice Department lacked the staff to enforce the law. Not only that but there was no system in place for reporting violations. Only if a black minister or a journalist, for example, spoke out, would the department even be aware of proposed changes. 

The localities themselves, of course, were required to get the Justice Department’s okay before altering the system, but many simply ignored the law and went ahead without approval. The statute provided for penalties, but they were never imposed.

“From the very first steps taken by the drafters of the voting rights bill, they surrendered to the white supremacists,” the retired academic writes. “They had a choice to make regarding federal enforcement of the act: use all the weapons in the union’s arsenal or keep the federal presence in implementing the act minimal to invisible. They took the invisible-implementation road.”

Despite the law’s shortcomings, Ball testified on its behalf when it came up for renewal in 1982 and wrote op-eds in its favor.

Outside of his work on that law, Ball, his wife, Carol, and their three daughters lived in Mississippi for six years. It was not always easy.

He and his wife were outspoken liberals, civil rights activists. They also stood up to the school system, which wanted to subject their daughters to Christian theology during school prayers. The two also tried to educate teachers and schoolchildren about Jewish holidays and customs.

None of those activities endeared them to the jittery, small local Jewish community.

During a meeting in their synagogue, their fellow congregations attacked them for publicizing their Jewishness.

“We like being white and invisible. It’s a safety device,” said one of the women.

“Let the goyim pick on the n****rs, we say, and we’ll get along as we have been getting along for over a century. We’re all happy livin’ the way we live, and we don’t get into trouble with the goyim.” 

While their fellow Jews berated the Balls, his successes at MSU – especially in enhancing and updating a master’s in public policy and administration program that attracted many black students – brought out antisemitism among some of his colleagues. “Simply put, some administrators and faculty were offended by our successful efforts at diversity and were not too embarrassed to call me that ‘damned Jew n****r lover.’”

Worse, during his six years in Mississippi, he received many threatening letters and phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan. 

During the family’s last year in the state, Ball told MSU president James McComas about the hate-filled letters and phone calls he had gotten over the years from KKK members, but said he was surprised that he hadn’t received more. The president laughed and then showed him his Ball file. 

“They sent their hate mail to me instead of you,” McComas said.

Those threats and hostility from the local Jewish community were among “the negatives [that] began to tire us out,” he writes, leading to their departure in 1982.

Despite his many bad experiences, Ball writes that he keeps returning to the state. He has run into more fascinating people in Mississippi than elsewhere, some “among the noblest people I have ever met; a few are pure evil. All are indelibly impressed in my mind.” 

Taking the Fight South: Chronicle of a Jew’s Battle for Civil Rights in MississippiBy Howard Ball