James Earl Chaney was born in Meridian, Mississippi, the elder son of Fannie Lee and Ben Chaney, Sr. His brother Ben was nine years younger, born in 1952, and he had three sisters, Barbara, Janice, and Julia. His parents separated for a time when James was young. James attended Catholic school for the first nine grades. At the age of 15 in high school, he and other students began wearing paper patches reading “NAACP”, to mark their support for the national civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1910. They were suspended for a week from the segregated high school, because the principal feared the reaction of the all-white school board. After high school, James Chaney started as an apprentice in a trade union with his father. In 1962, James Chaney participated in a Freedom Ride from Tennessee to Greenville, Mississippi, and in another from Greenville to Meridian. He and his younger brother participated in other non-violent demonstrations, as well. James Chaney started volunteering in late 1963, and joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Meridian. He organized voter education classes, introduced CORE workers to local church leaders, and helped CORE workers get around the counties.
In 1964, he met with leaders of the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church to gain their support for letting Michael Schwerner, CORE’s local leader, come to address the church members, to encourage them to use the church for voter education and registration. James Chaney also acted as a liaison with other CORE members. Chaney and fellow civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were killed near the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. They were investigating the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, which had been a site for a CORE Freedom School. In the wake of Schwerner and Chaney’s voter registration rallies, parishioners had been beaten by whites. They accused the Sheriff’s Deputy, Cecil Price, of stopping their caravan and forcing the deacons to kneel in the headlights of their own cars, while white men beat them with rifle butts. The same whites who beat them were also identified as having burned the church. Price arrested James Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner for an alleged traffic violation and took them to the Neshoba County jail. They were released that evening, without being allowed to telephone anyone. On the way back to Meridian, they were stopped by patrol lights and two carloads of KKK members on Highway 19, then taken in Price’s car to another remote rural road. The men approached then shot and killed Schwerner, then Goodman, and finally, after chain-whipping him, Chaney. They buried the young men in an earthen dam nearby.
The men’s bodies remained undiscovered for 44 days. The FBI was brought into the case by John Doar, the Department of Justice representative in Mississippi monitoring the situation during Freedom Summer. The missing civil rights workers became a major national story, especially coming on top of other events as civil rights workers were active across Mississippi in a voter registration drive. Schwerner’s widow Rita, who also worked for CORE in Meridian, expressed indignation that the press had ignored previous murders and disappearances of blacks in the area, but had highlighted this case because two white men from New York had gone missing. She said she believed that if only James Chaney were missing, the case would not have received nearly as much attention. After the funeral of their oldest son, the Chaneys left Mississippi because of death threats. Helped by the Goodman and Schwerner families, and other supporters, they moved to New York City, where Chaney’s younger brother Ben attended a private, majority-white high school. In 1969, Ben joined the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. In 1970, he went to Florida with two friends to buy guns; the two friends killed men in South Carolina and Florida, and Chaney was also convicted of murder in Florida. Chaney served 13 years and, after gaining parole, founded the James Earl Chaney Foundation in his brother’s honor. Since 1985, he has worked “as a legal clerk for the former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the lawyer who secured his parole”.
- May, 30, 1943
- Meridian, Mississippi
- June, 21, 1964
- Neshoba, Mississippi
- Okatibee Cemetery
- Meridian, Mississippi