Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
"Yeah, I shot that nigger. I blew his head off with a shotgun" -Ernest Avants
June 10th, 1966: Ben Chester White performs his morning routine and heads off to work. White, 67 years old, works at Cooper Hill Plantation, the same plantation where he has worked his entire life; the same plantation where his grandparents worked as slaves. By all accounts, White is a humble, hardworking, man who doesn't stir up trouble and keeps to himself ("White was", 1999). He doesn't cause the "ruckuses" that civil rights activists cause, like James Meredith, who organized a march from Memphis to Jackson that started just four days prior. White isn't even registered to vote (Bragg, 2003).
While he is working, White is approached by Claude Fuller, Ernest Avants, and James Lloyd Jones, who offer him $2 and a soda in exchange for helping them find their lost dog. Like the Good Samaritan (though with a different ending), he agrees to help, and the four men drive towards Pretty Creek in the Homochitto National Forest of Natchez, Mississippi.
White, a resident of Natchez, is no stranger to the ways of the Old South. In the 1930s anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner said that "the tradition of the 'Old South' had carried on [in Natchez] much better and with far greater security than any other place...in the deep south" (Davis, 2000, p. 45). Jack E Davis, a historian, wrote "But Natchez could be timeless with respect to attitudes, and self-consciously so, especially when and where social relations were concerned, or when the white population publicly revered its past, particularly the era before the Civil War" (2000, p. 46).
It is the combination of southern mythology, Ku Klux Klan formed opinions, and the consumption of alcohol which has White asking his final question, "Oh, Lord, what have I done to deserve this?" (Bragg, 2003). There are several answers to the question, all of which are equally true: you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you do not deserve this, and, to place words in the mouths of his assailants, you were born the wrong color.
The murderers' plot consists of murdering White so that the resulting publicity will draw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez to be assassinated. But, White's death goes unnoticed and unpunished; King never visits Natchez, nor does he publically discuss White's murder. When White's body is found it is riddled with bullet holes, and police connect it with a recently found abandoned, shot up, and burned car belonging to James Lloyd Jones. (Mitchell, 2010; "Ben Chester White", n.d.).
After several hours of interrogation, Jones breaks, and relates the horrors that he was accomplice to, saying "His brains, his brains. When we shot him, his brains went all over." He tells the police, "Fuller shot him with a machine gun, and Avants blowed his head off" (Mitchell, 2010).
Fuller and Avants are arrested. Avants, already suspected of having ties with the Klan, refused to talk about his Klan affiliation (Mitchell, 2010). Rumors endure that the three men were members of the Cottonmouth Moccasin Gang, a faction of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (Bullard, 1991).
The cases against the three murderers are handled separately. Jones is tried first. He confesses his role and expresses repentance, and the jury is deadlocked. Avants is then acquitted; his defense is that Fuller had already killed White so Avants' additional shots had no effect. Fuller claims health problems and is able to avoid trial.
In 1968, Jesse White, son of Ben Chester White, sues the Klan for his father's death. The judge rules in Jesse's favor and awards a sum of $1 million. While this ruling sets a precedent, being the first time that the Ku Klux Klan, as an organization, is held responsible for the actions of its members, Jesse and his family have yet to receive compensation (Mitchell, 2010; Bullard, 1991, p. 31).
In 2003, Avants is again charged with the murder of Ben Chester White but now he is facing federal charges since White was murdered on federal land. This time, at age 72, Avants is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Ernest Avants dies in jail in June, 2004. ("Ernest Avants", 2004).
Jim Crow Museum 2013
Bullard, S. (Ed.). (1991) The Ku Klux Klan: A history of racism and violence.
Montgomery, AL: Klanwatch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Davis, J.E. (2000). A struggle for public history: Black and white claims to Natchez's
past. The Public Historian 22(1), 45-63.
Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3379332
Ben Chester White video