In His New Book, Retired UVM Prof Howard Ball Recalls His Time as a Jew Fighting for Civil Rights in Mississippi | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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In His New Book, Retired UVM Prof Howard Ball Recalls His Time as a Jew Fighting for Civil Rights in Mississippi

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Howard Ball - GLENN RUSSELL
  • Glenn Russell
  • Howard Ball

Howard Ball is what's known in Yiddish as a kochleffel — literally, a "pot stirrer." He spent years fighting for civil rights and racial equality in the South and getting himself into what the late U.S. representative John Lewis called "good trouble."

Now 83, Ball has written 37 books, including several since his 2002 retirement from the University of Vermont, where he is professor emeritus of political science and a former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

His latest book, Taking the Fight South: Chronicle of a Jew's Battle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, is a memoir of 1976 to 1982, when Ball; his wife, Carol; and their three young daughters lived in Starksville, Miss. Ball's family and friends were flabbergasted by his decision to teach at Mississippi State University. He writes that his mother called him "meshuganah" — Yiddish for "crazy" — believing that "Mississippi was an evil third-world country ... where Jews were eaten after being boiled to death."

But the Bronx, N.Y., native saw the job as an opportunity to study up close what he'd spent years researching and writing about from afar.

"I felt this would be a laboratory for me," Ball told Seven Days. "I had not expected to be as involved in confronting racism as I was."

Ball got deeply involved. He recruited and traveled with Black referees to officiate high school football games, Mississippi's other dominant religion. He did volunteer legal work for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the NAACP to challenge the police treatment of Black people. In 1981, he testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee to encourage extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — which, he wrote, "did not endear me to a great many Mississippians."

Not until Ball began writing Taking the Fight South did he learn from his now-adult daughters the depth of their childhood fears of the Ku Klux Klan, fueled by years of late-night phone calls and anonymous threats.

The threats weren't always anonymous. In January 1982, after the Washington Post published Ball's op-ed "Mississippi's Voting Wrongs," Mississippi's then-U.S. senator John Stennis called MSU's president to demand Ball's dismissal. (Ball had tenure and kept his job.)

Seven Days spoke to Ball at his Richmond home on a day when systemic racism was major news: The country awaited a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white former Minnesota cop convicted of murdering George Floyd.

SEVEN DAYS: You write that your father was overtly racist. Was he just a product of his generation?

HOWARD BALL: My father was embittered because as a Jew he wasn't allowed in the union, and union plumbers made very good wages. In his view, he wasn't getting the benefits that the Blacks were. He was seeing the influx of minorities into cities, especially New York, and he couldn't grapple with that. And he was frightened because of the stereotypes society had created about Blacks on television and in movies.

SD: That didn't rub off on you as a child?

HB: No. From the time I was 5, I began reading books from the public library. By the time I was 10, I was into civil rights. As I entered high school, I had friendships with Black students. One of my closest friends, the head cheerleader at Taft High School, was Black. I wanted my father to meet her and some other close friends, but he absolutely refused. He didn't go to my high school graduation or my college graduation ... because they were integrated.

SD: You describe your childhood family as "Larry David Jews" — meaning, I assume, that you were culturally but not religiously Jewish?

HB: Yes. But ever since I was preparing for my bar mitzvah, my rabbi was constantly pushing [the first-century Jewish scholar] Hillel's view: "If you don't do it, who will? If not now, when?" I didn't need to offer arguments [against antisemitism] when I lived in New York because I didn't have those kinds of encounters. I was living in the Jewish ghetto.

SD: Where did you first experience antisemitism?

HB: In the barracks at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. I had experienced racial discrimination when I was picketing Woolworth's [department store] as a college undergraduate, but I had never seen religious discrimination firsthand. In that 60-man group, more than half were from Alabama and Mississippi, and they just expressed their racism and antisemitism openly.

SD: Margaret Cho, the Korean American actress and comedian, once said that she prefers her Klansmen "crazy and foaming at the mouth, with the Grand Wizard outfit on," because then you see their true colors.

HB: Absolutely! Because they were there, and they were bad, and they did terrible things. But you weren't surprised. You prepared yourself.

SD: So is it better to see racism openly, so we can address it? Or does overt racism, especially by politicians, give it legitimacy?

HB: Or the third option is to have those racial and religious prejudices within you but, given the societal pressure [not to open] up about them, they're kept quiet. I've seen [Cho], and she says that you want to know the evil you're confronting. I hope [the openness] will lead to the kind of systemic change that America needs. But I see it as a forlorn hope.

SD: What surprised you most about the antisemitism in Mississippi?

HB: That they were so frank and open about it. One of the religious people I spoke to said, "I know you're Jewish, and we don't really like many Jews. But you're safe because the Black is the lightning rod for prejudice and discrimination. You and the Catholics are safe because you're white." I got used to that kind of unbelievable frankness.

Every time our daughters attended a new school, we had to go in to the principal to talk about the in-class Bible readings. And we knew, after our daughters left, that they would revert back [to Bible readings]. Even when our daughters were there, it was only their classes that had no prayers. But the Jewish community kept a low profile and didn't stick their necks out. So when Carol and I did the stuff with prayers in the schools and all the other things that became very visible, they grew very concerned about us.

SD: Did you ever wonder why the late-night death threats never led to something more serious?

HB: Ten years earlier they would have. While we were in Mississippi, some of my close friends were saying, "Why the hell are you doing this? You're just antagonizing the people you're attacking." Like the Girl Scouts: Our daughters were friends with Black kids, but they couldn't get a troop organized because of the integration [issue]. So my wife just took it upon herself, with a Black mother, to create an integrated Girl Scout troop, and we just pushed our way in.

SD: You did the same to integrate football referees.

HB: I remember that first year when we [Ball and a Black referee] walked around the field pregame to make sure everything was OK. It was dead quiet in the stands. There's this bearded white guy and this Black guy talking. I loved refereeing. I was hoping that the bond we had, our love of the game, would translate into changing minds. Most of the officials were Mississippians and Alabamans. I always remember the drives our group took to the game. And I remember the first time we drove to Neshoba County, the place where the Klan killed three civil rights workers in 1964.

SD: In 2005, you covered the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, the Klansman accused and later convicted of those murders. Why did you want to be there?

HB: I had to see it for myself, because that kind of trial — a white man charged with murdering a Black man — had never taken place in Mississippi. There were cases in 1967 when 17 Klansmen were brought into federal court, but they weren't charged with murder. They were found guilty, not of taking lives but of denying the due-process rights of the three civil rights workers.

SD: Are you glad you experienced Mississippi?

HB: We were glad we were there, because we were educated in a way that we never could have been outside the South. Before, we didn't see the hatred and the absolute dichotomy between the way the white man and Black man lived. And now you have the irony of the whole country catching up to the Mississippi outlier. I am happy we went, but we agreed that we wouldn't want to go through it again.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Taking the Fight South: Chronicle of a Jew's Battle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by Howard Ball, University of Notre Dame Press, 256 pages. $32.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mensch Press"