HATTIESBURG, MISS. – A local family reflects on the civil rights movement in Hattiesburg. The Dahmer family told students of the “Sojourn To The Past” project about the role Vernon Dahmer Sr. played in helping African Americans get registered to vote.
Dahmer served as the President of Forrest County’s NAACP chapter and led voter registration drives in the 1960s.
“He would often say… until the African Americans had the opportunity to vote and participate in selecting the leaders we would not be free,” Vernon Dahmer Jr. said (Vernon Dahmer Sr.’s son).
Rules such as the Jim Crow laws and poll taxes stood as key factors to why many African Americans could not vote.
“He would take them in his car and go down there with them to the courthouse and stay with them. Until they could fill out the application,” Vernon Dahmer Sr.’s wife, Ellie Dahmer said.
Dahmer’s efforts to get African Americans registered to vote didn’t go unnoticed, and it even attracted unwanted attention.
“When black folks went to down to the local courthouse that opened them up to hostility. So, my dad talked to the tax collector who was the local sheriff at that time and said ‘hey, to try to avoid any civil uprisings or disturbance, just let me take the vote poll tax book to my store,’ And the tax collector said, ‘fine,’ Well when he did that, that was broadcast,” Vernon Jr. explained. “The Klan knew then Dahmer had just stepped out a little too far, and that made him a big target which ended up causing the tragedy our family suffered.”
The tragedy came on a Monday night, January 10, 1966. When the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan fire-bombed Dahmer’s house. While shooting into the home trying to kill anyone who might survive the fire.
“I woke to the house being on fire. My mother came into my room to get me. She tried to get a coat to put on me and she was not successful getting a coat on. My bedroom was adjacent to my parents’ room. I went in my parents’ room and there I could see my father shooting out of the window by his bed into the garage area. I had no idea why my daddy was shooting. I had no idea why other people were shooting in our house. I was ten and times were different then, but I had no idea people would try kill us,” Vernon Dahmer Sr.’s daughter, Bettie Dahmer said.
The entire Dahmer family escaped the attack that night. The majority of them climbing out of a window located in the back of the house. However, Vernon Dahmer Sr. and Bettie Dahmer both suffer serve burns. Vernon, later died that same day due to severely burned lungs and smoke inhalation.
For 32 years, Dahmer’s murder went unsolved until in 1998 when authorities arrested former Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers along with more than a dozen other Klansmen including Billy Roy Pitts who dropped his gun at the scene of the crime.
Investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger, Jerry Mitchell played a vital role in getting the case solved.
“Journalism can hopefully play a role in helping the right things done,” Mitchell said. “When that happens it’s a good thing.”
Despite the Dahmers’ heartbreak, and their long fight for justice. The Dahmer family says their hearts forgave the attackers years ago, and the reason why is simple.
“Well, I would tell you to look around and try to live your life the way it speaks of in the Bible. Treat folks the way you would like to be treated,” Bettie said. “Hatred is something that is thought, children are not born hating people. They are taught to hate and mistreat people. If we want to make this world a better place we’re going to have to try and treat people the way they want to be treated. I also encourage people who can to register and vote. Take an active part in the political process.”
The Dahmer family symbolizes a classic example of love and forgiveness over hatred and resentment. The family still lives Hattiesburg, and now spends their time telling the youth their testimony, and how the power of love can overcome hate.