In June of 1964, three Civil Rights Workers, one Black, Catholic, Mississippian and two White, Jewish New Yorkers, were reported missing in Mississippi. No one seriously believed they would be seen alive again. These men were James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
James Earl Chaney was born on May 30, 1943 in racially segregated and economically depressed Meridian, Mississippi. He attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School from kindergarten to ninth grade, where as a devout Black Catholic he was active in church activities and an altar boy for Sunday Mass.
He attended Harris Jr. College High School in Meridian, Mississippi, where being slight in build and severely asthmatic did not prevent him from participating in sports. He was captain of both the football and track teams.
As a young adult James Earl Chaney became involved in the struggle for civil and human rights. In 1958, at age 15, he and two young members of the local NAACP, as part of a recruiting program, initiated the wearing of paper badges with the letters “N.A.A.C.P” on them to school. The school principal, fearful of reprisals from the all white school board and in an effort to halt the political consciousness?raising of black students, suspended James Chaney and the other young organizers for a week and threatened suspension of any student who wore the NAACP paper badges.
In 1962, at age 19, working as an apprentice in a trade union, James Earl Chaney became involved in the “Freedom Bus Rides.” He boarded a Trailway’s bus in Tennessee and sat next to a ‘Freedom Rider’ enroute to Greenville, Mississippi. His father met him at the bus station and ushered him away from the bus and the brutality of the segregationist only to severely scold him for his political adventurism. Later, while still 19, he boarded a bus in Greenville heading toward Meridian, and sat next to a ‘Freedom Rider’ sitting in the front of the bus. The bus was escorted out of the city limits by police. Upon arriving in Meridian, the ‘Freedom Riders’ were threatened with arrest and warned, for their safety, not to loiter around the bus station or attempt to integrate the lunch counter where crowds of segregationists waited.
In late 1963, at age 20, unable to maintain a peripheral involvement in the struggle for human dignity, James Earl Chaney joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and began organizing voter education classes in Meridian, Mississippi. He served as liaison to Michael Schwerner and was responsible for COFO’s (Congress of Federated Organizations) Voter Education program in the backward, heavily Ku Klux Klan stronghold counties of southeast and east?central Mississippi.
On June 16, 1964, armed members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan “Fire bombed” the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, a rural community in notorious Neshoba county. Weeks earlier, James Earl Chaney had earned the trust and respect of church leaders and convinced them to allow Michael Schwerner, the director of the Meridian, Mississippi COFO office, to speak at the church. After many meetings, James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and church leaders made plans for the church to be used as a training site for voter registration classes for the disenfranchised Black community in rural Neshoba county.
Not until one week later, June 21, 1964, did James Chaney and Michael Schwerner have a chance to investigate the ruins of the Mount Zion church. With them was Andrew Goodman, a young Jewish volunteer from New York, who was to coordinate the Neshoba county voter registration project. After investigating the ruins of Mount Zion church and before starting their return trip to Meridian, Mississippi, the three civil rights workers visited some parishioners who were beaten by the Ku Klux Klan on the night of the fire bombing.
“THE NIGGER WAS FOUND ON TOP” read the August 5, 1964 headlines of the Meridian Star, a local newspaper. While enroute to Meridian, Mississippi the three civil rights workers were stopped by a Neshoba County sheriffs’ deputy and turned over to the Ku Klux Klan. They were murdered and their bodies buried in an earthen dam. The 44 day search for their bodies was national and massive. The body of James Chaney was a “mangled mass”. The injuries, besides the bullet holes, it was said “could only occur in a high speed airplane crash!”
Acting out of his deep belief in Human Rights, James Earl Chaney was a Black American who sacrificed his life to educate the poor, the disenfranchised in the procedures of our democratic system and the voting process.
The James Earl Chaney Foundation is established in the memory of James Earl Chaney to further advance and promote achievements in the area of Human and Civil Rights and Voter Registration.