Friday, February 28, 2003

Ben Chester White

"I have a dream that even here in Mississippi justice will come to all of God's children."
-- Martin Luther King.1966

Addendum: in case you couldn't tell, I often read Reporting Civil Rights in a fit of rage. Anybody would -- the sheer injustice of treatment of black Americans through most of the 20th Century just boils the blood. Not just the fact that murder was rampant, but the fact that you couldn't do anything about it. That was one of the salient sticking points that lawmakers had to deal with in the Civil Rights legislation of 1957 and 1964; it didn't matter if you the muscle to catch abusers if all-white juries were just going to let them go.

Today's story about the sentencing of Ernest Avants for the 1967 murder of Ben Chester White is one more grim reminder of that evil system. The facts are grim enough:

[Federal prosecutor Jack Lacy], in his closing argument, described how three Klansmen, Claude Fuller, James Jones and Mr. Avants, hatched a plot to kill a black man so brutally that it would draw Dr. King away from other concerns, so that they could get at him.

Under the premise of searching for a lost dog, they lured Mr. White into their car with the offer of a strawberry pop and $2. "They stopped at a store, bought beer and drove Ben Chester White out of his life," Mr. Lacy said.

According to Mr. Jones, a long-dead witness whose testimony was read into the court's record, Mr. Avants blew Mr. White's head off with a shotgun after Mr. Fuller fired 15 to 18 bullets into him from an automatic rifle, murdering him in the back seat of a 1966 Chevrolet as he cried out, "Oh Lord, what have I done to deserve this."

The fate of Avant was the usual fate of white trash with a head full of booze and a bellyful of hatred:

He was acquitted in state court in 1967, despite the testimony of an F.B.I. agent who said that Mr. Avants had confessed to the crime, and he seemed destined to live out his life a free man.

Luckily for the prosecutors, the killing turned out to have taken place on federal land, allowing for a new trial. But it's disturbing to note, as the story points out, that this was the first federal murder trial, and the first to involve a victim who was not a civil rights hero or well-known casualty, like Medgar Evers, a civil rights hero in Mississippi, or the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing.

How many other Ben Chester Whites were blown away while their killers got off scot-free? How many more ghosts of Mississippi? How many more ghosts of the South, of the country in general?

My guess: too many to count.

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