May 30, 1943
June 21, 1964
Age at Death:
James Chaney was born the eldest son of Fannie Lee and Ben Chaney, Sr. His brother Ben was nine years younger, born in 1952. He also had three sisters, Barbara, Janice, and Julia. His parents separated for a time when James was young. James Chaney was an activist during the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for voting rights for African Americans. He joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1963 and was part of a campaign for voter registration and desegregation known as the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. During this time, he was based in his hometown of Meridian MS, where he worked with voter rights activist Michael Schwerner. 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. Chaney also acted as a liaison with other CORE members.
In June 1964, Chaney and fellow civil rights workers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (both white) 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. The sherriff’s deputy Cecil Price, arrested Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner for an alleged traffic violation and took them to 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 Ku Kux Klan 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, both with one shot in the heart and finally Chaney with three shots, after severely beating him. 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 Chaney were missing, the case would not have received nearly as much attention.
Was justice served?
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 Enforcement 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, the former Ku Klux Klan organizer who had planned and directed the murders. Over the years, activists had called for the state to prosecute the murderers. The journalist Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning investigative reporter had discovered new evidence and written extensively about the case for six years. 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. 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 conducted 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; he was the only one of six living suspects to be charged. When the trial opened on January 7, 2005, Killen 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—20 years for each count, to be served consecutively.