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Former Klansman Is Found Guilty of 1966 Killing

Ben Chester White used twists of wire to hold the soles on his shoes, patched his own clothes with scrap and said “yes, sir,” to white men, and when he made a little money, he wrapped the $1 bills in wax paper so they would not be ruined by his own sweat. He was not registered to vote, and had never fought against the segregation that was as much a fact of life for him as a hoe handle or cotton sack. He died huddled in a car’s back seat, killed by men who needed a piece of bait, who needed to kill a black man so brutally in the summer of 1966 that the act itself would lure the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez, Miss., so that they could assassinate him. Today, in a federal courtroom in Jackson, Mr. White, the 67-year-old field hand, became, officially, a martyr of the civil rights movement. After just three hours of deliberations and a three-day trial, a jury of nine whites and three blacks found Ernest Avants, 72, a former Klansman and the last living suspect in this old case, guilty of murdering Mr. White as part of a beer-inspired plot to draw Dr. King down to them. “Imagine the hatred,” said Paige Fitzgerald, a trial lawyer with the United States Department of Justice, after helping to convict Mr. Avants. It was just the latest of several convictions over the last decade of old killers in civil rights cases who thought they had gotten clean away. But it 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. Full Story

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