The Lasting Impact of a Civil Rights Icon’s Murder

One of three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964 was James Chaney. His younger brother would never be the same

As James Chaney's family awaited the drive to his burial, 12-year-old Ben gazed outward. "There were a dozen questions in that look," says photographer Bill Eppridge. (Bill Eppridge)
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In the 44 days that his brother and two other young civil rights workers were missing in Neshoba County, Mississippi, 12-year-old Ben Chaney was quiet and withdrawn. He kept his mother constantly in sight as she obsessively cleaned their house, weeping all the while.

Bill Eppridge, a Life magazine photographer, arrived in Neshoba County shortly after the bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were pulled from the muck of an earthen dam on August 4, 1964. Inside the Chaney home in nearby Meridian, Eppridge felt that Ben was overwhelmed, "not knowing where he was or where he should have been," he recalls. "That draws you to somebody, because you wonder what is going on there."

On August 7, Eppridge watched as the Chaney family left to bury their eldest son. As they awaited a driver, Fannie Lee Chaney and her husband, Ben Sr., sat in the front seat of a sedan; their daughters, Barbara, Janice and Julia, sat in the back with Ben, who hunched forward so he'd fit.

Eppridge took three frames. As he did so, he could see Ben's bewilderment harden into a cold stare directed right at the lens. "There were a dozen questions in that look," Eppridge says. "As they left, he looked at me and said, three times, 'I'm gonna kill 'em, I'm gonna kill 'em, I'm gonna kill 'em.' "

The frames went unpublished that year in Life; most news photographs of the event showed a sobbing Ben Chaney Jr. inside the church. The one on this page is included in "Road to Freedom," a photography exhibit organized by Atlanta's High Museum and on view through March 9 at the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C., presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Chaney, now 56, cannot recall what he told Eppridge in 1964, but he remembers being livid that his mother had to suffer and that his father's generation had not risen up years before so that his brother's generation wouldn't have had to. "I know I was angry," he says.

Ben had lost his idol. Nine years older, James Earl Chaney—J.E., Ben called him—had bought Ben his first football uniform and taken him for haircuts. He had taken Ben along as he organized prospective black voters in the days leading to Freedom Summer. Ben, who had been taken into custody himself for demonstrating for civil rights, recalls J.E. walking down the jailhouse corridor to secure his release, calling, "Where's my brother? "

"He treated me," Ben says, "like I was a hero."

After the funeral, a series of threats drove the Chaneys from Mississippi. With help from the Schwerners, Goodmans and others, they moved to New York City. Ben enrolled in a private, majority-white school and adjusted to life in the North. But by 1969 he was restless. In Harlem, he says, he was elated to see black people running their own businesses and determining their own fates. He joined the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army.

In May 1970, two months shy of 18, Chaney and two other young men drove to Florida with a vague plan to buy guns. Soon, five people, including one of their number, were dead in Florida and South Carolina.

Chaney said he didn't even witness any of the slayings. He was acquitted of murder in South Carolina. But in Florida—where the law allows for murder charges to be brought in crimes that result in death—he was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to three life terms.


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