JACKSON, Miss., Feb. 28 — 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 that 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.
"This courtroom has been a time machine where the past and the present have collided," said Jack Lacy, the federal prosecutor who tried the case here.
Mr. Avants, who has suffered a stroke and other health problems, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. His wife, Martha, sat near him, impassive, her arms crossed on her chest. Mr. Avants had predicted this, speaking to a reporter four years ago.
"Hell," he said then, "they'll probably convict me this time."
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.
But the revelation that Mr. White's body had been found on federal land, in a national forest, gave prosecutors a way around the double jeopardy protections that had shielded Mr. Avants, and, years ago, they began building their case. Everything he had ever said about the case was relevant and damaging, all over again.
This week, the F.B.I. agent who had heard him confess in 1967, Allan Kornblum, returned to Mississippi to again tell the jury what he heard.
"I blew his head off with a shotgun," Mr. Kornblum testified that Mr. Avants told him in 1967.
But this time, in a racial climate that is more prone to automatically condemn such behavior than to automatically dismiss it or condone it, as was the case then, the jury came back with a guilty verdict.
For Mr. White's son, Jesse White, it was like finally being fed after living his whole life hungry.
"Like a good meal," said Mr. White, 65. "It feels good."
Mr. 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."
To corroborate that testimony from Mr. Jones, who was granted a mistrial in 1967 despite confessing to taking part in the killing, prosecutors in the new trial brought Mr. Kornblum back into the courtroom.
"An eyewitness account and the murderer himself makes a confession?" Ms. Fitzgerald said. "It doesn't get any better than that."
The lawyer for Mr. Avants, Tom Royals, argued throughout the trial that the prosecution's case hinged on a liar's testimony.
Mr. Jones, a drunk who had failed at most things he had ever tried, fabricated the story of the murder to save his own skin, Mr. Royals said.
He told prosecutors in 1966 that he was afraid he would burn in hell if he did not confess.
The prosecutors, in 2003, said it was just a man trying to get right with God before he died. The defense lawyers derided it as a habitual liar's false use of religion as a shield.
"I lied as long as my conscience would let me and then I broke down and told the truth," Mr. Jones said at the time. In fact, he did give differing versions of his involvement in the case.
"That's what I liked about Jones, he was always breaking down and telling the truth," Mr. Royals said.
Prosecutors painted a picture of a man who only drove the car, who was horrified after brains and gore splashed on him from the shotgun blast.
Mr. Royals asked the jury if they would want such a man to be their doctor or stockbroker.
"I lie when I need to want to," said Mr. Royals, pretending to quote Mr. Jones. "I lie sometimes, but I'm telling the truth now, so believe me."
Ms. Fitzgerald countered with these words, "Crimes committed in hell do not have angels for witnesses."
Mr. Avants is to be sentenced in May, and the likely outcome of that will be life in prison, legal experts said. Mr. Avants is in such poor health, his lawyers said, that any sentence may be a life sentence.
Mr. Royals said he would appeal the case, based on a judge's ruling that allowed Mr. Jones's testimony to be read into the record. He could not cross-examine Mr. Jones, he said.
"It was almost impossible," he said, to give his client the defense he needed.
Although it is unlikely that Mr. White, a Baptist deacon who dug graves to earn a little extra money, will go down in history alongside men like Dr. King, Mr. Evers and other civil rights heroes, the outcome of the abbreviated trial makes sure that his name and the circumstances of his death will not just vanish into the ground with other unsolved crimes of that era, said prosecutors.
"Tell Mr. White," Ms. Fitzgerald said in her closing, "that there is no amount of time that can forgive this crime."