James Chaney was twenty-one when he died on Rock Cut Road. Chaney had begun volunteer work at the new CORE office in Meridian in Cotober, 1963, after a girlfriend introduced Chaney to Matt Suarez, the office's first director. Chaney soon became Suarez's chief aide, guide, and companion. His work ranged from constructing bookshelves at the community center to travelling to rural counties to set up meetings. Chaney, being black, was able to go places white CORE members were afraid to go. To Mississippi whites, Chaney was "as inconspicuous as an alley cat." When the Schwerners arrived in January to assume direction of the Meridian office, they found Chaney to be their most willing volunteer. In April, the Schwerners wrote a letter to the national CORE asking that Chaney become a paid staff member: "We consider him to be part of the Meridian staff....James has never asked us to buy him a cup of coffee, though he has no means of support."
Chaney was a native of Meridian and the eldest son in a family of five children. His mother, a domestic servant, was protective; his father, a plasterer, left his mother when James was in his mid-teens. He was slightly built, but athletic. He was described as shy in public, but a cutup in his home.
Chaney first encountered problems at the Catholic school for Negroes he attended in 1959, when he was sixteen. Chaney was suspended for a week when he refused to remove a yellow paper NAACP "button." The next year he was expelled from school for fighting. Chaney tried to join the army, but his asthma resulted in a 4-F disqualification. Unemployed and restless, Chaney joined the Negro plasterer's union, where he apprenticed with his father. His work as a plasterer ended in 1963 after a fight with his father.
According to William Huie, Chaney "outside of the Movement was a Nobody facing a lifetime of being a "boy" helper to a white carpenter or painter or plumber. Inside the Movement he was Somebody; people would listen to him and he had something to contribute."