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Chaney, James Earl

Chaney, James Earl

May 30, 1943
June 21, 1964

Civil rights activist James Chaney was born in Meridian, Mississippi, to Ben Chaney and Fannie Lee Chaney. His parents instilled a strong sense of racial pride in him, and in 1959 he, along with a group of his friends, was suspended from high school for wearing a button meant to criticize the local NAACP chapter for its unresponsiveness to racial issues. One year later he was expelled from school and began to work alongside his father as a plasterer. Chaney's experiences traveling to different job sites throughout Mississippi on segregated buses, at the same time that Freedom Rides mounted by civil rights organizations aimed at challenging segregated interstate transportation were occurring throughout the South, further spurred his activism. In 1963 he became directly involved in civil rights activities and joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). One year later CORE joined forces with the Mississippi branches of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to spearhead a massive voter-registration and desegregation campaign in Mississippi called the Freedom Summer.

During his work with COFO, Chaney met Michael Schwerner, a white Jewish liberal who had been a New York City social worker before he joined CORE in 1963 and relocated to become a field worker in Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman, a young Jewish college student who had volunteered for the Mississippi Freedom Summer project. Assigned to work together in Meridian, on June 21, 1964, the three men went to Longdalea black community in Neshoba County, Mississippito investigate the burning of a church that had been a potential site for a Freedom School teaching literacy and voter education. The Ku Klux Klan was firmly entrenched in large areas of Mississippi, and it was widely suspected that the Klan had burned the church down to prevent civil rights activities. As the three men were driving back to Meridian, they were detained by the police in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Chaney was arrested for speeding and Schwerner and Goodman were arrested as suspects in the church bombing. None of the men was allowed to make a phone call or pay the fine that would have facilitated his release from the Neshoba County jail.

The arrest of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman was no accident. Civil rights workers were constantly harassed by white night riders and local policemen who were often Klan members more committed to maintaining the racial status quo than to upholding justice. Schwerner was the first white civil rights worker to be stationed outside of Jackson, Mississippi. His activities and presence had made him well known to Meridian whites, and his success in initiating civil rights programs and his Jewish background had made him a target of the Klan, which had nicknamed him "Goatee" because he wore a beard. After Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price confirmed that the car Chaney had been driving was registered to CORE, he alerted local Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen. Killen quickly organized a posse of Klansmen and formulated a plan of action with as many as twenty conspirators. Later that same night, Price released the three men from jail after Chaney paid the fine. They were followed out of town by a Klan posse, forcibly removed from their cars, driven to an isolated wooded area a few miles away, and killed. Their bodies were buried in an earthen dam in the immediate vicinity of Philadelphia, a burial site that had been chosen beforehand.

Attempts to locate Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman had been initiated by COFO when the trio had not called or reached their destination at the allotted time. As it became increasingly apparent that harm had befallen them, COFO renewed its longstanding request for assistance from the Justice Department and mobilized a campaign among their membership to put pressure on governmental officials. Social violence against black people in Mississippi was commonplace, and despite the high proportion of lynchings that took place in Mississippi, no white person had ever been convicted of murdering a black person in the history of the state. The heightened interest in civil rights, and the likely involvement and disappearance of two white men, commanded national attention and federal response. Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with the families of the missing men, and FBI agents were dispatched to the scene to mount an extensive investigation. When the charred remains of Chaney's car were found a few days after the incident, Neshoba county was flooded with journalists who reported to the shocked nation the hostility of Mississippi whites who seemed to epitomize southern racism.

The FBI recovered the bodies of the three civil rights workers from the earthen dam on August 4, 1964, and four months later nineteen men were charged with the conspiracy. The federal government was forced to use a Reconstruction-era statute to charge the men with conspiring to deprive Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman of their civil rights because the social consensus behind the lynch mob's actions made state prosecution for murder unlikely.

Recalcitrant judges, defense delays, and problems with jury selection hampered the due process of law for three years. In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to reinstate the original indictments after the case had been thrown out of court, and in February 1967 the long-delayed trial finally began. Despite various confessions and eyewitness accounts, only seven defendants, one of whom was Deputy Sheriff Price, were convicted nine months later. Only two men were given of the maximum sentence of ten years under the law. Two of the other men received sentences of six years, and three received three-year sentences. The conspirators were all paroled before serving full jail terms and most returned to the Mississippi area by the mid-1970s.

The murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman became a milestone in the civil rights movement. Although an important precedent for federal intervention on behalf of civil rights workers was set, this incident was memorialized by many in the civil rights movement, not only as an instance of southern injustice but as the result of many years of federal indifference to the plight of African Americans. In 2004, the fortieth anniversary of the murders, Ben Chaney, James's brother and head of the James Earl Chaney Foundation, spearheaded a grassroots campaign to reopen the case.

See also Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Freedom Summer; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)


Cagin, Seth and Dray, Philip. We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Huie, William Bradford. Three Lives for Mississippi. New York: WCC Books, 1965.

robyn spencer (1996)

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