The Ghosts of Mississippi

In the bitter and violent history of the civil-rights era in the South, Ben Chester White rates no more than a footnote–and, sometimes, not even that. White never took part in the sit-ins, the marches or the voting-rights campaigns: he was 67, an old farmhand who lived in the country near Natchez, Miss. On June 10, 1966, three Klansmen drove to White’s house and asked him to help them find a lost dog. They drove to a remote spot in the Homochitto National Forest. According to testimony at their later trials, one of the three, Claude Fuller, took out a rifle and opened fire on the terrified old man. “Oh, Lord, what have I done to deserve this?” White said as he died. The FBI says it later learned the Klan’s plan was to stage a race murder that would bring Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez–then assassinate King.

Now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Jackson, Miss., is preparing to seek new indictments in the case–perhaps as early as this week, NEWSWEEK has learned–although prosecutors would not name the targets. Like the revived investigation into the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., the White case is part of a determined push to close the books on the Klan murders of the ’60s. Claude Fuller, the man who allegedly killed White, died without ever facing charges. The other two Klansmen, James Jones and Ernest Avants, were tried separately and Avants was acquitted. Jones, who has since died, was freed by a hung jury. There was testimony that Avants fired a shotgun blast that virtually decapitated White. But Avants’s lawyer argued that his client had shot the old man after he was already dead–and therefore couldn’t be convicted of murder. Today, Avants denies doing any of the shooting. “It’s true he said that,” Avants told ABC News. “But it ain’t true that I done that.”

Avants also said that if he were tried now, “hell, I’d be convicted”–a candid recognition that times have changed. The prosecutors who are now reopening the old cases, like Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack B. Lacey Jr., see the process as something akin to exorcising historical ghosts. “We can’t afford not to deal with the past,” says Lacey, who was born in Canton, Miss. One case that may have been a breakthrough was the 1994 prosecution of white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers; Beckwith, 79, is now in prison. Another pivotal case resulted in the conviction of Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, for the 1966 firebombing death of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer. Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore says it was simply wrong that Bowers and other Klansmen weren’t prosecuted for murder in the ’60s. “I hold Sam Bowers personally responsible not only for the Dahmer killing, but all these killings,” Moore says. “He was the imperial wizard and provoker of all this meanness.”

The meanest Klan conspiracy of all, Moore says, was the notorious triple murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner outside Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964. For 44 days, the FBI searched creeks and thickets all across Neshoba County until an informer’s tip led them to an earthen dam where the three men were buried. No state charges were ever filed in the case, although federal authorities eventually prosecuted the Neshoba County sheriff, Lawrence Rainey; deputy Cecil Price, and more than a dozen Klansmen for conspiracy to violate the three men’s civil rights. Seven of the defendants were convicted, including Bowers and Price, but none served more than six years. “They served a little time but that’s not enough,” Moore says. “On the simplest level, it’s a murder case where nobody’s ever been prosecuted for murder.”

Reopening the Dahmer case has produced new information about the Neshoba County murders, Moore says, adding that “we’re getting closer” to producing indictments after all these years. Moore says Bowers, now in prison for the Dahmer murder, is one likely target. Bowers recently denied any role in the three murders. Another potential target of Moore’s is Edgar Ray (Preacher) Killen, 75, who is widely believed to have planned the killings. Killen, who was acquitted in the federal trial in 1967, denies involvement. But Moore says, “My message to Preacher Killen is if I can make a case, you’re going to be the first to be indicted.” Sooner or later, Moore says, all the Neshoba County Klansmen will face a simple choice–they can be witnesses, or they can be defendants.