Vernon F. Dahmer: Civil Rights Martyr and American Hero
These remarks were prepared by sociologist and SNCC veteran Joyce Ladner for a commemoration of Vernon Dahmer on January 8, 2016, hosted by the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.
By Joyce Ladner
I want to thank the Dahmer family, particularly Ellie Dahmer and the Dahmer children who had to find ways to go on after his life was cut short. They kept his life and legacy in the forefront of our minds. They ensured that those who took his life were prosecuted. I also want to thank Jerry Mitchell, Clarion Ledger investigative reporter, who played a key role in the conviction of the Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers who ordered the fatal firebombing of the Dahmer family.
January 10, 2016 will mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of civil rights martyr and American hero, Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer. He was a civil rights leader, community leader, and businessman in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In the early hours of January 10, 1966, members of the Ku Klux Klan shot into and firebombed the home he shared with his wife and children in the Kelly Settlement section of Hattiesburg. It occurred soon after he announced on local radio that he would accept poll taxes at his grocery store and take them to the Forrest County Voting Registrar, Theron Lynd. He offered to pay the poll taxes for those who could not afford them. In doing so, he was going up against the formidable Lynd, who had a reputation for failing most blacks on the literacy test when they tried to register to vote. I was a college senior when I “failed” the literacy test in 1964.
I will never forget the 6 A.M. call to my St. Louis apartment from my mother back in Hattiesburg who told me that the Ku Klux Klan had torched the Dahmer home and store to the ground and that Mr. Dahmer was in critical condition. Her next call later that day was to tell me he had died. His murder caused me to have a loss of innocence because I was reminded that the civil rights struggle could still cause the unleashing of the most virulent racial violence against activists. I could not understand how he had survived for so long when others like Rev. George Lee, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Herbert Lee, Clyde Kennard, Louis Allen, Mack Charles Parker, the three civil rights workers (two of whom I knew), and others had died. I always saw Mr. Dahmer as a big bear of a man who was courageous, outspoken, and indestructible. How could they kill him too? I thought the most violent era of the Civil Rights Movement had passed. But his murder let me know that it hadn’t.
Mr. Dahmer was president of the Hattiesburg NAACP chapter and led local and statewide voter registration campaigns at a time when one signed a death warrant by doing so. His mantra was, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.” He was well known to Sam Bowers, the Ku Klux Klan leader in the area who ordered his murder. For a long time Vernon and Ellie took turns sleeping so that one could be awake if their home was attacked. However, they had stopped guarding their home shortly before the Klan attacked. That night at around 2 A.M., Molotov cocktails and gunfire were shot into the Dahmer home. Vernon helped Ellie and their young daughter and sons get out of the house through the windows. Then he went back into the house that was in flames and shot at his assailants to give his family time to find cover. His elderly aunt who lived in the family grocery store next door managed to get out safely as it also erupted in flames.
It was Vernon Dahmer’s courageous trip back inside the flaming house that was fatal. He was only fifty-eight years old. Four of his six sons, who were serving their country in the United States military, arrived home in time for the funeral to grieve for their father, the ultimate patriot, and to help to pick up the pieces from the devastating psychological, emotional, economic, political and family carnage the Klan caused.
In his short fifty-eight years, Dahmer launched voter registration drives, and adhered to the philosophy that it was his responsibility to be his brother and sister’s keeper. Perhaps it was also his economic independence that made him a target for the Ku Klux Klan. He annexed large tracts of land, built a commercial farm of cotton, owned a sawmill, a planer mill, and a grocery store. He hired his Black neighbors from Kelley Settlement to work for him, thereby carrying out his philosophy of being a good neighbor. This was largely unheard of in the fifties and sixties because very few Black people owned businesses. The jobs he provided reduced Black flight to northern cities and strengthened the local community. Vernon Dahmer was a generous man who believed in the power of a united community. He was also a leader in the Shady Grove Baptist Church as leader of the choir and Sunday school Superintendent.
I met the man I still call “Mr. Dahmer” when I was in my early teenage years. His sister, Eileen Beard, was a member of our church and she and my mother were best friends. She invited my sister, Dorie, and me to go with her and her husband Kenneth, their neighbor civil rights activist Clyde Kennard, and her brother, Vernon Dahmer to several statewide NAACP meetings in Jackson. As we rode up the old two-lane Highway 49, they talked about the importance of finding ways to get Negroes registered to vote. For Mr. Dahmer, voting was the only way to move from second class to full citizenship. I was spellbound as I listened to them talk about a subject that was so verboten that one could be killed for it. You see, this was the late 1950’s when the NAACP was outlawed in Mississippi. These were extremely dangerous times.
When we arrived in Jackson, I surveyed the large number of cars and trucks bearing license plates from throughout Mississippi. I couldn’t help but wonder if the white people would soon learn the names of those who attended these meetings. The police wrote down the tag numbers of all the vehicles and made sure that the police in each town knew who was present at the meeting. It led to attendees being fired from their jobs and violent harassment. This can be confirmed by perusing the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission records. I worried if the Hattiesburg police were going to have my father fired from his job. The harassment did not intimidate Mr. Dahmer, the Beards, or Clyde Kennard because they were determined to forge ahead in the uphill struggle for civil rights.
Those rides to and from the mass meetings in Jackson had a deep effect on me. Although I had a strong racial consciousness from the time I was a young child, meeting Vernon Dahmer and Clyde Kennard strengthened my desire to find ways to help my people take a stand against racial discrimination.
That time came in 1958 when Mr. Dahmer and Clyde Kennard invited Medgar Evers to Hattiesburg where they organized a Hattiesburg NAACP Youth Chapter. Teenagers from throughout the area came together at True Light Baptist Church to meet Evers, who was already a civil rights legend. Mr. Dahmer also invited Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes (Muhammad) to Hattiesburg in the early 1960s to stay at the family’s farm and do voter registration organizing. These acts of courage launched a new generation of young people who were poised to strike a blow against segregation and discrimination. This would not have occurred had it not been for Vernon Dahmer.
Dahmer’s contributions to the civil rights movement were substantial. He was dedicated to the proposition that everyone should have the right to vote, irrespective of his or her race or social standing. He was courageous at a time when courage was in short supply. He helped to lay the groundwork for the protracted civil rights movement that officially came to Mississippi with the arrival of the Freedom Riders in 1961. Most of all, he paid the ultimate price for the cause of civil rights by giving his life.
While Dahmer never had the chance to vote, his impact was evident when Ellie Dahmer was elected in 1992 to serve as the election commissioner. She served for more than a decade in the same district where her husband had been killed.
Today, we celebrate the life of Vernon Dahmer, without whose sacrifice fifty years ago there would be no Black legislators, desegregated schools, or a large Black professional class throughout the state. It is on the shoulders of Vernon Dahmer that young people continue to organize today for justice for all.
A chapter on Vernon Dahmer in Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote by Gordon A. Martin Jr.
Oral history interview with Ellie Dahmer, conducted in 1974. Available at the USM Digital Collections.
For images, visit the Moncrief photo collection at the MDAH.