White was an unlikely Klan target

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 5, 1999

Ben Chester White’s only crime was that he was born black. For that reason White was shot to death on June 10, 1966. The crime shocked those that knew the gentle Adams County handyman.

&uot;It hurt,&uot; said White’s longtime neighbor Jean Simonton.&160;&uot;It really, really bothered all of us.&uot;

The 67-year-old laborer was working at Cooper Hill Plantation off Liberty Road on that day in June. White had worked at the plantation his entire life. It was the same plantation where his grandparents years before had worked as slaves.

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&uot;He pretty much stayed to himself,&uot; said Don Simonton, a Natchez native who has studied White’s murder for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

When a car pulled up and the men inside asked him to help them find their missing dog, White was quick to help.

He was never seen alive again.

His battered body, shot some 17 times, was found dumped near Pretty Creek in the Homochitto National Forest.

After the discovery of White’s body, fingers pointed everywhere and rumors were that local members of the Ku Klux Klan were to blame.

It wasn’t until law enforcement officers were investigating an unexplained car fire that they began finding out more details of White’s murder.

Apparently the car had been torched to destroy any evidence. Police believe it was same car that drove Ben Chester White to the bridge where he was killed. Eventually the car’s owner, James Lloyd Jones, admitted his part in the crime. He later denied giving the confession.

Unlike many other blacks killed because of their race, White wasn’t outspoken in fighting for his civil rights or the right to vote. He wasn’t active in the NAACP.

White didn’t fit the stereotypical Klan target. He was a simple laborer who tried to stay out of trouble. But none of that mattered to those filled with hate.

He was murdered simply because he was black. Perhaps White was chosen simply because as a man in his 60s he may have been easier to overpower. We may never know for certain.

Reports from the time show that White’s murder may have been much more complex than it appeared on the surface.

Apparently Klan members hoped the outcry following White’s murder would bring famed civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez so that he too could be killed.

King didn’t come Natchez and neither did justice in this case.

Three men, including Jones, were charged with White’s murder after one confessed and implicated the others.

One defendant was found not guilty, Jones’ trial ended with a hung jury and the third defendant’s case never went to trial.

Now more than 33 years after White was lured into that car, authorities have reopened the investigation into his death.

Two of the three original defendants are dead.

The man who was acquitted, Ernest Avants, is still living as a free man in Lincoln County.

Only time will tell if, after more than three decades, justice can find its way out of the woods near Pretty Creek where Ben Chester White was murdered.

Kevin Cooper is managing editor of The Democrat. He can be reached at (601) 446-5172 ext. 241 or by e-mail: kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.