Locals remember slain civil rights activist Chaney
PAYING TRIBUTE n Members of the Knights of Peter Claver, a Catholic fraternal organization, pay tribute Saturday at St. Joseph's Catholic Church to the late civil rights activist James Chaney. Standing in prayer are, front row left to right: Edward K. Tureaud, Robert Smith, Larry McCoy, Cornelius Horner, Benjamin Pollard, Lewis Woods, the Rev. Elvin Sunds, Robbie Robinson and Grand Knight David Stephens. Back row, from left to right: Jesse Hill, Miguel Jordan, Jerry Scott, Raymond H. Hill and Freddie McCoy. Photo by Carisa Mccain / The Meridian Star
By Fredie Carmichael/staff writer
February 24, 2002
David Stephens stood on the edge of the brick Meditation Garden at St. Joseph's Catholic Church and told a group of other men why they were there on a crisp Saturday morning.
Stephens, who leads the Catholic fraternal organization called the Knights of Peter Claver, then told the story of James Chaney the black civil rights worker who was brutally murdered in June 1964.
Then they stood near a stone marker in the garden and said a prayer honoring Chaney who once attended St. Joseph's School and served as an altar boy at the city's historically black Catholic church.
The brief program was part of the Knights' observance of Black History Month. And it reminded members of a crime that has become symbolic of Mississippi's troubled racial past.
It was 9:30 a.m. on June 21, 1964, when Chaney, 21, was last seen alive in his home town. He left Meridian driving his late-model Ford station wagon with two other civil rights activists.
They were driving north on Highway 19, headed for Philadelphia.
Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were planning to look into the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church, a black church 12 miles east of Philadelphia.
Instead, they were murdered later that night in Neshoba County by members of the Klu Klux Klan. Their bodies were found two months later buried in an earthen dam.
Five men were later convicted of federal conspiracy charges in connection with the deaths.
Chaney's story was the subject of two films the 1990 television movie "Murder in Mississippi" and the 1988 theatrical production of "Mississippi Burning."
On Saturday, the scene was somber.
After the prayer, members of the Knights of Claver made the 15-minute drive to Chaney's grave site near Okatibbee Baptist Church off Valley Road, southwest of Meridian.
Signs directing motorists to the grave site, however, were missing from Valley Road. And at the grave site itself, Chaney's headstone had a gash near the top where his portrait once hung.
Justice Court Judge Robbie Robinson, a member of the Knights who helped organize the tribute, blamed it all on vandalism. He said people have destroyed other head stones that marked Chaney's grave.
At the grave, members of the Knights formed a circle and prayed. Jesse Hill, a member of the Knights, then placed a bouquet of red carnations at Chaney's headstone.