It took 41 years, but Fannie Lee Chaney lived to see her home state mete out a degree of justice for the murder of her son, James Chaney, on Father's Day, 1964. She was born Fannie Lee Roberth on a farm in a community called Sand Flats near Meridian. She married Ben Chaney in 1940, had a daughter, Barbara, the next year, and then gave birth to James Earl Chaney on May 30, 1943, as recounted in the book "We Are Not Afraid."
By then, the family lived in a black neighborhood in Meridian, and as her four children—Julia was born in 1949 and Ben Jr. in 1953—Mrs. Chaney worked as a domestic for as little as $1.50 a day. She was determined, though, that her children get a good education and send them to St. Joseph's Academy, a Catholic school for black kids. Her oldest son—called J.E.—quickly took on a paternal role after his father left the family when J.E. was a teenager.
The children's education, and the treatment of their family in segregated Meridian, had a powerful impact. In the 1960s, J.E. joined the Civil Rights Movement, working with Michael and Rita Schwerner, two civil rights workers from New York, to help start a Freedom School in Meridian to teach literacy to African Americans and help them try to pass the onerous literacy tests being used as an excuse to keep them from voting.
On June 21, 1964, Chaney—along with Schwerner and just-arrived Andrew Goodman—became martyrs for the cause of black freedom when Klansmen from Philadelphia and Meridian kidnapped and executed them, then dumped their bodies under a red-clay dam. The murders drew national media attention to the horrors of Mississippi's apartheid, and helped end Jim Crow segregation and get federal civil-rights legislation on the book.
Like the families of the other two men, Mrs. Chaney knew that the world would not have cared had Goodman and Schwerner not been killed along with her son. "If it had been my son alone, nothing would have been done. Two white boys were killed, so they did something about the killing of my child who was with them," Mrs. Chaney said in 1967.
Mrs. Chaney, along with her young son Ben, moved to New York City after the murder of J.E. She traveled back in 2005 to testify at Edgar Ray Killen's trial.
During her testimony, she warned the world that this cold-case prosecution should not be the last—that the bodies of nine other black men were found in Mississippi during the search for her son and his friends.
Mrs. Chaney died May 22 in New Jersey. She will be buried next to J.E. in Meridian.