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Fannie Lee Chaney, 84, mother of slain civil rights worker

Fannie Lee Chaney, testifying in the Edgar Ray Killen trial. (file 2005/associated press)

JACKSON, Miss. -- Fannie Lee Chaney, the mother of one of three civil-rights workers beaten, killed, and buried in an earthen dam in a galvanizing moment of the movement, died Tuesday. Mrs. Chaney, 84, had lived to see a reputed Klan leader convicted two years ago in the slaying of the young men.

Her death was announced yesterday by her son, Ben, from her home in Willingboro, N.J.

James Chaney was killed June 21, 1964, in central Mississippi along with fellow civil rights workers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.

Mississippi prosecutors revived their investigation of the killings a few years ago, and Fannie Lee Chaney testified in June 2005 at the Philadelphia, Miss., trial of reputed Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen.

Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, exactly 41 years after the killings. Now 82, Killen is serving a 60-year prison sentence.

Fannie Lee Chaney, then 82, testified that on the morning of the killings, she made breakfast at her Meridian, Miss., home for Schwerner, Goodman, and her son, whom she called J.E. She said her son went to join the other two in delivering books.

"He never come back," she said.

Fannie Lee Chaney said she moved from Mississippi in 1965 after receiving threats, including one from a man who said he would dynamite her house and another who told her she would "be put in a hole like James was."

Chaney, a black man from Mississippi, and Schwerner and Goodman, white men from New York, were looking into the torching of a black church and helping to register black voters during what was called Freedom Summer. They had been stopped for speeding, jailed briefly, and then released, after which they were ambushed by a gang of Klansmen.

Their bodies were found weeks later. They had been beaten and shot.

Killen was tried along with several others in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. The all-white jury deadlocked in Killen's case, but seven others were convicted. None served more than six years. Killen was the only person indicted on state murder charges in the case.

The case was portrayed in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who helped prosecute Killen, recalled that he held Fannie Lee Chaney's hand to steady her as she walked to the witness stand to testify. Though her legs were shaky with age, Hood said, she seemed to have found an inner strength and calmness.

"She told me she just wanted to live . . . to have her day in court over her son's murder," Hood said yesterday.