'Mississippi Burning' murders still smolder for one brother

Ben Chaney, slumped over, weeps at the August 7, 1964, funeral of his brother, James Earl Chaney.

Story highlights

  • James Earl Chaney's siblings forced to flee home after his murder
  • Brother of slain activist says he hated white people
  • No one has ever been convicted in the murder of the civil rights workers
  • Chaney's daughter talks about dad she never knew
Ben Chaney slumped to the ground and covered his eyes to cry.
As a cluster of photographers circled him to snap his picture, the 12-year-old began to cry so hard that his thin body shuddered. People walked up to him to offer comfort, but he shooed them away. He finally rested his head on the right shoulder of his mother, Fannie Lee.
That was the first time most people would see Ben, the younger brother of James Earl Chaney, one of three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi during the summer of 1964.
He was then known as "Little Ben Chaney." In the pictures news photographers took of him at his brother's memorial service, his resemblance to his brother was uncanny: the same almond-shaped eyes, high forehead and oval-shaped lips.
The last time Ben saw his brother alive was on a Sunday morning. James Earl Chaney, often called J.E., had stopped by with his friend and colleague, Michael "Mickey" Schwerner, for some homemade biscuits. Both were going to investigate a church burning and Ben wanted to go.
"No," James Earl Chaney told his little brother. "We'll be back later."
Ben sat on his front porch that afternoon and waited for his brother to return. He waited into the evening. He waited so long that his mother finally ordered him to bed.
He would wait 44 more days before he discovered what had happened to his older brother. James Earl Chaney had been ambushed and murdered along with Schwerner and another civil rights volunteer, Andrew Goodman.
The murders became international news. Photos of "Little Ben Chaney," shattered by grief at his brother's memorial service, would make their way across the world.
But few people know what happened afterward to the grieving boy in the photos. Few know about the anger that followed Ben's tears; the murder spree that claimed the lives of three white people; his 13 years in prison; and his eventual return to Mississippi to seek justice for his brother.
Few knew that when Ben collapsed into his mother's arms and wept that morning, his pain was just beginning.
'No one has been brought to justice'
Ben Chaney trudges through the snow in a wind-swept cemetery in Meridian, Mississippi, until he finally reaches the place. He stands on a desolate hilltop before a marble headstone printed with the name "James Earl Chaney."
At the top of the headstone is a small picture of the deceased. But as Ben leans forward to look at the picture, his eyes narrow: two bullet holes pierce his brother's image.
Ben traces the bullet holes with his right index finger. "This is the fourth or fifth time the grave has been desecrated," he says. "Before, there were attempts to open up the vault to get to the coffin."
The 1964 FBI flier for the missing civil rights students Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
This is the first time I've met Ben. I've been assigned by a newspaper to meet him in Mississippi to talk about his brother. But he acts nothing like the sensitive 12-year-old who allowed the entire world to witness his grief. The 50-year-old man who stands before me is stoic, wary; his face betrays no emotion as he looks at his brother's bullet-pocked headstone.
Perhaps Ben needs all the emotional reserve he can get. For the past 13 years, he has spent much of his time traveling back to Mississippi to campaign for the retrial of the men accused in his brother's murder. He also still has family in Mississippi -- James Earl's daughter, born a week after his murder.
When he's not in Mississippi, Ben is a paralegal in New York. He's experienced almost every angle of the legal system imaginable. He's seen gloating Southern lawmen escape conviction in his brother's death. His experiences with the legal system haven't been good, but Ben is now trying to use the system to avenge his brother. He established the James Earl Chaney Foundation to preserve his brother's memory, but he wants more.
Ben wants the men responsible for his brother's death to be charged with murder. But he is running out of time.
Nineteen men were eventually arrested in the deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Two of them were Mississippi lawmen: Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price.
A Ku Klux Klan member confessed to FBI agents that he had witnessed the murders. He claimed that Price had arrested and released the three civil rights workers that night, knowing that a mob was waiting to ambush them on a rural road. But despite this and another confession, no Southern jury would ever convict anyone for the actual murder of Chaney or his colleagues.
In 1967 prosecutors managed to convict seven of the men for conspiring to deny the civil rights of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. None served more than 10 years. Some of those originally arrested, including Lawrence Rainey and Cecil Price, have died -- Price fell from a cherry picker and Rainey died of throat cancer.
Ben believes that the state of Mississippi is hoping that the rest of the men will die so it won't have to endure the ugly publicity of a new murder trial. He has personally reviewed the 2,900 pages of transcripts from the trial and even the autopsy photographs (he says his brother was beaten so badly before he was shot to death that it looked as if he had been in an airplane crash).
When he talks about his brother's murder, Ben never brings up the possibility of forgiving the men who were arrested in his brother's death. He says about 12 of them are still alive. Though they are old, he wants them tried again.
I ask him if he's still angry after all these years. "I don't know if I'm angry at them as individuals or as a group," he says. "But I know that I'm angry over the fact that my brother is dead and no one has been brought to justice for his death."
He has no interest in trying to discern the mindset of the men who killed his brother. He doubts if any of them experienced any guilt or regret during the years that have followed. "They feel the way they felt back in the 1960s," he says. "They felt justified in what they were doing, and they still feel justified."
Who was James Earl Chaney?
Ben says his brother had no illusions about the men he was going against. He knew they would kill. But he persisted because there was this tremendous frustration building up among blacks in Mississippi by the early 1960s. "A lot of young African-American males in their teens and early 20s were looking for an opportunity to do something. When the opportunity came, a lot of them didn't do anything, but a few did."
James Earl Chaney didn't wait long to plunge into the movement. A native of Meridian, he was once suspended from high school for wearing an NAACP badge. In 1963 he began working in the Meridian office of the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE.
In the summer of 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer began. Young black civil rights workers i