Ben Chester White was the caretaker of the Carter family farm off Liberty Road in Natchez his entire life and was never involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Despite his elderly age of 67 and lack of involvement in the racial tumult of the 1960s, James L. Jones, Claude Fuller and Ernest Avants, all members of a murderous Klan offshoot calling themselves the Cottonmouth Moccasin Gang, murdered Mr. White on July 10, 1966. The three men picked up Mr. White on that June afternoon. After buying Mr. White a soda, the three took him to Homochitto National Forest and forced him out of the car. He was shot at least 18 times by Fuller and Avants. His body was then dumped into Pretty Creek and the car was burned in an attempt to destroy the evidence. Jones, overcome with remorse, went to the Adams County Sheriff’s Office and confessed to his involvement in the crime.
Some speculate that Mr. White was killed to take the focus away from James Meredith’s March Against Fear, also taking place in July 1966. Others say that the Klan wanted to lure Martin Luther King, Jr. to Natchez for an assassination attempt.
All three men were charged by the State of Mississippi on first-degree murder charges. Fuller was never tried, and Jones’s trial ended in a hung jury. Avants was acquitted of the murder charge but lost a wrongful death suit to the White family, though the White family has yet to collect any damages.
However, when Federal prosecutors realized that Mr. White was murdered on federal land, specifically in Homochitto National Forest, they reopened the case. In 2003, Ernest Avants was convicted of aiding and abetting in the murder of Ben Chester White and sentenced to life in prison. U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour Jr. told Avants, who listened from a wheelchair, “Justice in this country can and sometimes has to wait. Times have changed since 1966. When Ernest Avants’ generation is finally dead, I hope most of the hatred will have died with it.”
Bragg, Rick. “Former Klansmen is Found Guilty in 1966 Killing.”New York Times. 1 March 2003.
Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.