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Remembering James Earl Chaney

Having commemorated Fred Hampton's death just yesterday, we now remember his kin in the faith and in the struggle, James Earl Chaney of the Mississippi Three.

Earlier today on Twitter, a Black Catholic priest commemorated the Freedom Summer murders.

You'll notice a fact there that is perhaps not highlighted very often, concerning religion.

While Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner are often noted for their Judaism (and Whiteness)—understandable, given the circumstances of their deaths—what's often left out is the Catholic background of James Earl Chaney, the lone Black member of the group.

Articles abound that make mention of his Catholic schooling in passing—with particular reference to its segregated nature—but Chaney was also a convert, an altar boy, and devout.

"I'm a Baptist. I don't quite know how my boy wound up joining the Catholic Church, but... that was his choice."
(Fannie Lee Chaney, James' mother)

From an obscure 1963 piece published in Ramparts magazine by the late Louis E. Lomax, this quote sums of most of what we know about the faith of Chaney—with his mother noting that as he became more involved in activism during high school and met Schwerner, he drifted away from the Church.

This can hardly come as much of a surprise, as he and some of his classmates had been suspended five years prior by their Catholic principal for the offense of wearing NAACP badges.

Though at least one source claims the nonviolence activist was later expelled for "fighting", the Los Angeles Times (and Chaney's sister) report it was for continuing to publicly support the NAACP at school.

The 1963 piece, in the hagiographical style somewhat common in Civil Rights historiography, merely claims Chaney "left school and devoted all of his time to the civil rights struggle".

In fact, Chaney unsuccessfully attempted to join the military, before abortively taking up his father's plastering trade—a venture allegedly derailed by another fight, this time with the man who had left his mother around the time of James' run-in with parochial White Catholic racism.

Only then did Chaney have so much time to devote to the cause of freedom. Time he used quite well, galvanizing a movement both in his life and afterlife.

By modern standards, Chaney died during childhood. The same age many of us were still depending on our parents for support while finishing college, and learning how to navigate a bar.

The same age Fred Hampton, another Catholic-influenced Black activist, would die 5 years after Chaney—on December 4th no less, assassinated by the government. Chaney and his Jewish allies would also die at the hands of the state—but also the Church.

In the same way that it's important to see Chaney as a real, struggling, human being with flaws and a story, it seems equally important to see him as a Black Meridian deeply connected to the Catholic faith—whatever amount of it may have been left within him at the time of his death.

Catholics—Black and White, devout and lapsed—are often characterized as sitting aloof throughout much of the Black Freedom Movement, but this is demonstrably untrue.

And while the faith of most Civil Rights activists is openly championed, the Catholicism of Chaney was not even to be found on his Wikipedia page.

Until today, that is.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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