James Earl “J.E.” Chaney (May 30, 1943 – June 21, 1964), from Meridian, Mississippi, was one of three American civil rights workers who were murdered during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The others were Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner from New York City.
Early life and education
James Earl Chaney was born in Meridian, Mississippi, the oldest 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 started 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, Chaney started as an apprentice in a trade union with his father.
Civil rights activist
In 1962 Chaney participated in a Freedom Ride from Tennessee to Greenville, Mississippi, and in another from Greenville to Meridian. He and his younger brother also were part of other non-violent demonstrations. James Chaney started volunteering in late 1963, joining the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Meridian. He organized voter education classes, introduced CORE workers to local church leaders and helped them get around the counties.
In 1964 he met with leaders of the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church to gain their support for letting Michael Schwerner, local leader of CORE, come to address the church members, to encourage them to use the church for voter education and registration. He acted as a liaison with other CORE members.
Chaney and the other men were killed near the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. He and fellow workers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman 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. That same group was identified as having burned the church.
Price arrested the three (Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman) 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 & two carloads of KKK members on Hwy 19 then taken in the car to another remote rural road. The men approached then shot and killed Schwerner, then Goodman, and finally Chaney, after chain-whipping him. They buried the young men in an earthen dam nearby.
The men’s bodies remained undiscovered for 44 days. The FBI was quickly 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 Chaney were missing, the case would not have received nearly as much attention.
Aftermath for family
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 Ben attended a private, majority-white high school. In 1969, Ben joined the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Party. In 1970 he went to Florida with two friends to buy guns; the two friends of Chaney 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.”
In 1967, the US government went to trial, charging ten men with conspiracy to deprive the three murdered men of their civil rights under the Force Act of 1870, the only federal law then applying to the case. The jury convicted seven men, including Deputy Sheriff Price, and three were acquitted, including Edgar Ray Killen.
Memorial to murdered civil rights workers:Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael H. Schwerner, Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, Philadelphia, Mississippi
Over the years, activists had called for the state to prosecute the murders. The journalist Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, had discovered new evidence and written extensively about the case for six years. Mitchell had earned renown for helping secure convictions in several other high-profile Civil Rights Era murder cases, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham church bombing and the murder of Vernon Dahmer. He developed new evidence about the civil rights murders, found new witnesses, and pressured the State to prosecute. It began an investigation in the early years of the 2000s (decade).
Marker near 70th Street/Freedom Place near Riverside Boulevard in New York Citycommemorating the three civil rights activists murdered in Mississippi in 1964
In 2004 Barry Bradford, an Illinois high school teacher, and his three students, Allison Nichols, Sarah Siegel, and Brittany Saltiel, joined Mitchell’s efforts in a special project. They did additional research, and created a documentary about their work. Their documentary, produced for the National History Day contest, presented important new evidence and compelling reasons for reopening the case. They obtained a taped interview with Edgar Ray Killen, who had been acquitted in the first trial. He had been an outspoken white supremacist nicknamed the “Preacher.” The interview helped convince the State to reopen an investigation into the murders.
In 2005 the state charged Killen in the murders of the three activists, the only one of six living suspects to be charged. When the trial opened on January 7, 2005, he pleaded “Not guilty.” Evidence was presented that he had supervised the murders. Not sure that Killen intended in advance for the activists to be killed by the Klan, the jury found him guilty of three counts of manslaughter on June 20, 2005, and he was sentenced to 60 years in prison—twenty years for each count, to be served consecutively.
Believing there are other men involved in his brother’s death who should be charged as accomplices to murder, as he was, Ben Chaney has said, “I’m not as sad as I was,” he adds. “But I’m still angry.”
Legacy and honors
- A memorial at the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church commemorates the three civil rights activists.
- A plaque near Riverside Boulevard at 70th Street in New York City commemorates the three men.
- The sacrifice of the murders contributed to Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, federal legislation to enforce social justice and constitutional rights.
- 1998, the James Earl Chaney Foundation was set up by his brother Ben Chaney in his honor to promote the work of civil rights and social justice.
Representation in other media
- The 1975 2-part TV movie, Attack on Terror: The FBI vs. the Ku Klux Klan was based on Don Whitehead’s book (Attack on Terror: The F.B.I. Against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi), detailing the events a week before the assassinations and concluding with the Federal trial of the conspirators. Actor Hilly Hicks portrayed “Charles Gilmore,” a fictionalized representation of James Chaney.
- Meridian 1976, a novel by Alice Walker, portrayed issues of the civil rights era.
- The 1988 film, Mississippi Burning, was loosely based upon these events.
- The circumstances surrounding the deaths of the activists were the subject of the 1990 TV movie Murder in Mississippi, which featured Blair Underwood as James Chaney.
- In the Season 13 episode, “Chosen,” of the series Law & Order, a defense lawyer Randy Dworkin (played by Peter Jacobson) prefaces a speech against affirmative action with the phrase, “Janeane Garofalo herself can storm into my office and tear down the framed photos of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, that I keep on the wall over my desk…”
- The band Flobots’ song, “Same Thing,” asks to bring back Chaney.
- In Stephen King’s The Dark Tower fantasy novel Song of Susannah (2005), the protagonist Odetta Holmes met Chaney and his colleagues in Oxford Town.