James Chaney

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J.E. Chaney
BornJames Earl Chaney
(1943-05-30)May 30, 1943
DiedJune 21, 1964(1964-06-21) (aged 21)
Mississippi, U.S.
Cause of deathMurder
EthnicityAfrican American
 
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J.E. Chaney
BornJames Earl Chaney
(1943-05-30)May 30, 1943
DiedJune 21, 1964(1964-06-21) (aged 21)
Mississippi, U.S.
Cause of deathMurder
EthnicityAfrican American

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.

Contents

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.[1] 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 starting 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.

Murder

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. As they drove back to their quarters in Meridian, they were stopped on a remote rural road by two carloads of KKK members. The men shot and killed Schwerner, then Goodman, and finally Chaney, after chain-whipping and mutilating 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. As rivers were dredged, investigators found the bodies of other black men and women who had been murdered, but their deaths were not investigated at the time.

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.[citation needed]

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 other two killed men in South Carolina and Florida, and Chaney was also convicted of murder in Florida. He 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."[1]

Federal trial

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.

State investigation

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.[1] 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 City commemorating 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.[1] 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."[1]

Legacy and honors

Representation in other media

References

  1. ^ a b c d e Hank Klibanoff, "The Lasting Impact of a Civil Rights Icon's Murder", Smithsonian magazine, December 2008, accessed 15 October 2011
  2. ^ "Chosen", Law and Order, TV.com

External links