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On this date, we mark the birth of James Chaney, a Black civil rights activist, in 1943.
He was born in Meridian, MS, the son of Ben and Fannie Lee Chaney. His parents instilled a strong and resilient racial pride in him early on. In 1959, he and a group of friends were suspended from high school for wearing buttons criticizing the local chapter of the NAACP for its unresponsiveness to racial issues. Chaney was expelled a year later for a similar incident and went to work with his father as a plasterer.
Ironically, during this time, his travels to different jobs on segregated buses throughout the segregated south exposed him to the Freedom Rides. The Freedom Rides were mounted to reverse segregation in these areas, and his experience further spurred his activism. In 1963, Chaney joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). One year later, he joined his home state’s branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the NAACP to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to launch a massive voter registration and desegregation campaign in Mississippi.
The state was hostile to integration and civil rights activism, and the state paid spies to compile lists of citizens suspected of involvement. They also tracked all northerners who entered the state to work on civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan was firmly rooted in this part of the state.
During Freedom Summer in 1964, Chaney worked with an interracial team, including New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, to organize a Meridian community center to register African Americans for voting. On June 21, 1964, with two Jewish associates, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman working with the CORE Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, the three set out to investigate a church bombing in Longdale, MS, a potential site for a Freedom School teaching literacy and voter education. As the three of them were driving back to Meridian, police in Philadelphia, MS, detained them. Chaney was arrested for speeding, and Schwerner, and Goodman were arrested as suspects in the church bombing. No phone calls were allowed, nor were they allowed to pay the fines.
The FBI recovered the bodies of the murdered men from an earthen dam on August 4. Three years later, two men convicted of the murders were sentenced to ten years, and three others were convicted of conspiracy to six years. Despite confessions and eyewitness accounts, all were paroled before serving their full term, and most returned to Mississippi by the mid-1970s.
But a journalist, Jerry Mitchell, had written extensively about the case. With a schoolteacher, Barry Bradford, and a few of his students, new evidence was developed, new witnesses were found, and the State was pressured to take action. A new trial was called. When the trial opened on January 7, 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, once an outspoken white supremacist nicknamed the "Preacher," pleaded "Not Guilty" to Chaney's murder. Fannie Lee Chaney and Carolyn Goodman, mothers of two civil rights workers, were the last witnesses for the prosecution. The jury found Killen guilty of manslaughter on June 20, 2005, and he was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement
By Danny Lyon
Copyright 1992, University of North Carolina Press