Town Gears Up for Fed Murder Trial
NATCHEZ, Miss. (AP) _ Those who remember Ben Chester White recall a farmhand who liked to talk, tried his hand at courting and generally left others alone _ not someone who deserved to die because he was black.
White was allegedly abducted by Ku Klux Klansmen 34 years ago, dragged into a national forest in southwest Mississippi and shot to death. A previously acquitted white man now awaits trial on a federal murder charge.
Seventy-year-old Naomi Jackson, smiling as she recalls that White tried to date her in their youth, says the man she knew by the nickname ``Chest″ was not a threat to anyone.
``He was a nice looking old man, with good hair,″ Jackson said. ``He just ran his mouth a lot, but he didn’t bother nobody.″
The 67-year-old White’s body was found in June 1966 in Homochitto National Forest, decapitated and shot more than 12 times.
Ernest Henry Avants, 69, one of three people originally accused of the killing, was acquitted in a 1967 state trial. Avants has maintained his innocence.
Federal authorities reopened the case after learning the killing may have taken place on federal land, and Avants was indicted earlier this month on a federal murder charge. The two other alleged accomplices have since died.
Prosecutors say the killing might have been part of a plot to lure the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the area so he could be assassinated. Free on $50,000 bond, Avants faces an August trial.
Talk at the time of White’s death, Jackson said, was that he may have stolen something from his killers. Jackson believes her friend may have run his mouth too much.
``Sometimes you can see things going on and you wouldn’t say anything about it, but he did because he didn’t know any better. He didn’t care what color you were,″ Jackson said.
No matter the reason, she said, ``They had no business, doing that. That was terrible what they did to him, poor old fellow.″
The threats did not end with White’s murder, Jackson said.
She said White’s girlfriend and neighbor, Martha Washington, was forced to flee the Natchez area after someone attempted to burn her home.
William Bell, 65, one of two black jurors in that trial, also remembered White _ a small-framed man, about 160 pounds, with a gold tooth on the side of his mouth.
``I was small when I really knew him, because I left the country (area of Natchez) in 1953,″ Bell said. ``He used to ride a bike to town. I never knew nothing (about him) but that he was a nice man.″
Bell said he and Avants had both worked for International Paper Co., although they had no dealings with each other.
Before the trial, Bell said, ``I just had it in my mind that I was going to convict the rascal.″
However, he says the prosecution did not present enough evidence for a conviction. Avants allegedly confessed to killing White during the initial investigation, but his confession was never presented at the state jury.
Bell believes the jury might have found him guilty if it had known about the confession.
Bell said he probably should have been afraid of what whites might have done to him had Avants been convicted, but said other blacks in the community didn’t blame him for acquitting him.
``I guess they felt like we did what we had to do based on the evidence,″ Bell said.
On the Net: Civil rights era links: http://www.bamaed.ua.edu/cse489/crproject/links.htm