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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One of his first visitors in jail was Bill Eppridge. Before setting up his cameras, Eppridge fired off a quick Polaroid. His editor liked the Polaroid best. Life readers saw Ben Chaney with his eyes framed by prison bars. "He just looks scared," says Eppridge, who, after the weekly Life folded in 1972, went to work for Sports Illustrated.

"I can imagine I was afraid," Chaney says. "I was in jail."

He served 13 years. Paroled in 1983, he started the James Earl Chaney Foundation to clean up his brother's vandalized grave site in Meridian; since 1985, he has worked as a legal clerk for former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the lawyer who secured his parole. He envisions creating a Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner Center for Human Rights in Meridian.

In 1967, eighteen men faced federal charges of civil rights violations in the slayings of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. Seven were convicted by an all-white jury, eight were acquitted and three were released after jurors deadlocked. The state of Mississippi prosecuted no one for 38 years. But in 2005—after six years of new reporting on the case by Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger—a sawmill operator named Edgar Ray Killen was indicted on charges of murder.

On June 21, 2005, exactly 41 years after the three men were killed, a racially integrated jury, without clear evidence of Killen's intent, found him guilty of manslaughter instead. Serving three consecutive 20-year terms, he is the only one of six living suspects to face state charges in the case.

Ben Chaney sees it this way: somewhere out there are men like him—accomplices to murder. He did his time, he says, they should do theirs. "I'm not as sad as I was," he adds. "But I'm still angry."

Hank Klibanoff is the author, with Gene Roberts, of The Race Beat, which received the Pulitzer Prize for history last year.


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