Civics For Change: James Earl Chaney
When I began my job search in the summer of 2020, I knew that I wanted to work for an organization fighting for our democracy, as I believe our right to vote is inextricably tied to all other rights. Not only was I interested in civic engagement, but I was also on the lookout for an organization that didn’t shy away from the indisputable fact that racist policies and systems have disenfranchised Black people and people of color since the beginning of our democratic process. Enter The Andrew Goodman Foundation.
“We’re rooted in a powerful story from the past. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Andrew Goodman joined Freedom Summer 1964 to register Black Americans to vote. On his first day in Mississippi, he and two other civil rights workers, James Earl Chaney and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Andrew and his contemporaries were young Americans who were committed to changing the world and joined a movement to take action against injustice.”
While Robert and Carolyn Goodman established The Andrew Goodman Foundation in their son’s memory, we exist to live the legacy of all three men — Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Earl Chaney. Over the course of this summer, as we prepare for Legacy Summer 2022, we will be looking back to our founding story for inspiration. We will share history about Freedom Summer 1964, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, but now, we start with the life of James Earl Chaney and how we can continue his legacy today.
James Earl Chaney was born on May 30, 1943, in racially segregated and economically depressed Meridian, Mississippi, to Fannie Lee and Ben Chaney, Sr. He was the oldest of five siblings and eagerly participated in sports. Despite his small frame and severe asthma, James secured the position as team captain of both the football and the track team.
Those who knew James described him as someone who was wholeheartedly committed to the fight for civil rights. At an early age, James followed his passion for justice with action. At age 15, James and several of his classmates were suspended from school for wearing paper badges reading “NAACP” to show their support for the national civil rights organization. While button-wearing may seem like a mundane act today, in 1958 it was a true show of defiance in the face of the Jim Crow South. This sign of solidarity with the NAACP was enough to garner a week’s suspension from a segregated high school because the principal feared the reaction of the all-white school board.
James continued his activism after graduation by joining the “Freedom Bus” movement in 1962. At the age of 19, James boarded the front of a bus headed for Greenville, Mississippi. Local police escorted the bus out of city limits and warned the activists that police were waiting with arrest warrants at the other end of their bus ride. At this point in James’ life, his relationship with his father began to dissipate as his father was unable to support such bold civic action. James didn’t let this deter him from continuing his activism. In 1963, James joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) where he began organizing voter education classes. According to Bernice Sims, who was one of the last people to see James Earl Chaney alive, James began working closely with Michael “Mickey” Schwerner and eventually served as Mickey’s liaison.
Throughout the South, CORE established several Freedom Schools, which were temporary, alternative, and free schools for Black Americans to attend. They were originally part of a nationwide effort during the Civil Rights Movement to organize for social, political, and economic equality. One of those Freedom Schools, a church, was located in Neshoba County, Mississippi. On June 16, 1964, members of the Ku Klux Klan firebombed Mount Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba in an act of hate. Not even one week later, James Earl Chaney and Mickey Schwerner convinced church leaders to let them investigate the torched church. The church leaders agreed, and the two men set out to investigate the church with a young, white Jewish college student by the name of Andrew Goodman, a Freedom Summer volunteer who had traveled to Mississippi from New York.
The events that followed made national headlines for weeks, as all three men were brutally murdered upon arrival in Neshoba by the Ku Klux Klan. Their sacrifices spurred national momentum that eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
James Earl Chaney’s story is one of an individual who believed he could make a difference. He believed that through collective action, things could change. He engaged in the same methods of civic engagement that our Andrew Goodman Ambassadors are utilizing today. Through voter education, voter registration drives, and community events, our Andrew Goodman Ambassadors are in many ways continuing Chaney’s story and passion. We believe that young people have always been and will always be the changemakers who push us forward toward a just and inclusive democracy.
The momentum that James Earl Chaney and other young organizers created did not end during the Freedom Summer of 1964. That is why The Andrew Goodman Foundation will host its eighth annual Andrew Goodman National Civic Leadership Training Summit, themed Legacy Summer 2022 on August 11-12. During this virtual event, Andrew Goodman Ambassadors and young people from our partner organizations will gather to hear inspiring panels and participate in training sessions, just as young organizers did ahead of Freedom Summer. Join us at Legacy Summer 2022 by registering today. We hope to see you there as we continue the legacy of James Earl Chaney.
About The Author
Mo Banks is the Digital Marketing Manager at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. They currently live in Arkansas with their wife and 4 kids, where they’ve been working as a digital communications specialist for the past 4 years.