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James Chaney was an African-American civil rights activist from the United States. Chaney, along with Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi for educating rural African-Americans about their voting rights.

Childhood and Education

James Earl Chaney was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on May 30, 1943. He was the first born son of Ben Chaney and Fannie Lee.[1][2] Ben worked as a plasterer and Fannie worked as a domestic servant. They couple produced four more children before Ben left the family while the young Chaney was in high school.[3]

Jim Chaney studied from kindergarten to 9th grade at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. He was very devout, serving as an altar boy and participating in many church events. He then enrolled at Meridian’s Harris Junior College High School and quickly joined the track and football team. He performed well and captained both teams despite being small and asthmatic.[4]

Activist Beginnings

During high school, Jim Chaney joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and became a part of the recruiting program in 1959. He and two other students wore NAACP buttons made of yellow paper.[5] The high school’s principal suspended the students and banned the paper buttons in fear of opposition from the all-white school board.

The school expelled Chaney the following school year after for fighting. He attempted to enroll in the U.S. Army, but his severe asthma disqualified him.[6] Jim Chaney joined the plasterers’ trade union with his father in 1962.[7][8] While in the union, he participated in the “Freedom Bus Rides.”

Chaney first attempted to ride a Trailway bus from Tennessee to Greenville, Mississippi with a “Freedom Rider.” His father forced him off the bus and away from the violence. Later that year, Chaney joined a “Freedom Rider” on a bus from Greenville back to Meridian. The police escorted the bus out of the city limits. When they arrived in Meridian, the police met them and threatened to arrest any “Freedom Riders” in the future.[9] Chaney quit the union after fighting with his father in 1963.[10]

The Congress for Racial Equality

James Earl Chaney began his professional civil rights activism by working the places white activists feared to enter.

Jim Chaney joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in October 1963. He met Matt Suarez, the first director of CORE, through a girlfriend. He worked closely with Suarez as an aide and friend. They built bookcases at the local community center together and met with citizens throughout the rural Mississippi counties. Chaney guided the many white CORE members and helped them reach out to the black communities they feared and that feared them.[11]

Chaney also headed the organization of voter education classes for African-Americans in Meridian through the Congress of Federated Organizations Voter Education program working in Ku Klux Klan communities. He worked with Mickey Schwerner after Schwerner took over for Suarez.[12]

Arson at Mount Zion Church

The head of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, Sam Bowers, targeted Mickey Schwerner for encouraging the boycotting of white businesses by black patrons and the voter education program in Meridian run by Jim Chaney.[13] Chaney also spoke with the leaders of the Mount Zion Methodist Church located in Neshoba County, Mississippi’s small rural community of Longdale to build up a rapport.

Chaney eventually convinced the leader of the church to allow Schwerner to speak at the church about civil rights. They formed a partnership and Schwerner and Chaney received approval to teach classes on voter registration at the church.[14] On June 16, 1964, 30 Ku Klux Klan members surrounded the church to search for Schwerner discussing his “Freedom School,” but they did not find him there. They beat the black church members and then burned down the Mount Zion Church.[15]

The Murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner

Mickey Schwerner and Jim Chaney were with Andrew Goodman at a training event for the Mississippi Summer Project in Ohio when the firebombing occurred. The three men returned to Longdale to discover what happened in Neshoba County. They inspected the Mount Zion Church’s charred remains. Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney then went to the homes of different black church members and were warned the three men were being pursued by an angry group of white men.

Jim Chaney fearlessly entered any area of Mississippi to advance civil rights.

The Neshoba County Sheriff, Lawrence Rainey, and his deputy, Cecil Price, were Klan members and as Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner attempted to leave Neshoba by the less conspicuous Highway 16, Price saw them. He took them to jail and contacted the Klan leader, Edgar Ray Killen, to devise a murder. Schwerner was denied his phone call and that when his office called to check on their whereabouts the jailer who took the call, Minnie Herring, lied. Price released them around 10pm and followed their CORE vehicle on Highway 19.

Price dropped off another officer before continuing his pursuit and two other vehicles with KKK members soon joined him. Chaney saw Price approaching only 10 miles away from the county line and tried to out run them. Price kept up with them and Chaney braked the car and the three men surrendered for some unknown reason.

The police and Klan members took James Earl Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner to a dam at the Old Jolly Farm owned by Olen Burrage. Wayne Roberts shot them after they may or may not have been beaten. Price returned to work as the Klan members buried the three bodies.[16]

Investigation and Trial

The CORE headquarters called in the Justice Department’s John Doar, who called in the FBI and local agent, John Proctor. They discovered the CORE station wagon on fire in the county and, by June 25, the military joined in the search. On August 4, 1964, they discovered the bodies in the dam and Price helped dig out the bodies.

One of the Klan members, James Jordan, turned over information under pressure from the FBI. The U.S. Justice Department faced issues charging the 19 accused men, including Rainey and Price, from Mississippi’s Federal Judge William Harold Cox. After a nasty and heated trial, the jury convicted seven defendants, including Price, Bowers, Roberts, and others, on October 20, 1967. Most served less than 10 years for their crimes with Price only serving four of his given six years.

On January 6, 2005, after the October 6, 2004, march in support of prosecuting Edgar Ray Killen, the state of Mississippi charged Killen with the murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. He was sentenced in June 2005 to three 20-year jail terms.[17]

References

Bibliography


JECF. (2017). James Earl Chaney (1943 - 1964). The James Earl Chaney Foundation.[2]

Linder, D. O. (2014). Biography of James Chaney. University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law.[3]

Linder, D. O. (2016, June ). The Mississippi Burning Trial (U. S. Vs. Price et al.). University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law.[4]

Footnotes

  1. CORE. (2014). Chaney, Goodwin, and Schwerner - James Earl Chaney. Congress of Racial Equality.[1]
  2. JECF, 2017
  3. Linder, 2014
  4. JECF, 2017
  5. Linder, 2014
  6. JECF, 2017
  7. Linder, 2014
  8. JECF, 2017
  9. JECF, 2017
  10. Linder, 2014
  11. Linder, 2014
  12. JECF, 2017
  13. Linder, 2016
  14. JECF, 2017
  15. Linder, 2016
  16. Linder, 2016
  17. Linder, 2016

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