Valley students find similarities between struggles then and now
HATTIESBURG, Miss. — After hearing from members of the Vernon F. Dahmer Sr. family, Lekeila Houser found that her perspectives regarding making a difference in society grew some sharp edges.
“The family put into perspective how close in time this happened; this was not long ago at all. The civil rights movement just happened,” Houser, a Sojourn to the Past member, said Wednesday after having met the family on the annual Sojourn to the Past journey.
Houser was referring to what she sees as a relatively short time between the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and similar societal problems that continue today.
Houser was among those who visited the home of Dahmer’s wife, Ellie J. Dahmer, and was introduced to several of the couple’s children.
Vernon Dahmer was a key civil rights leader and strong advocate for exercising one’s right to vote. The couple raised eight children on the Kelly Settlement, and Vernon worked as a farmer, grocer, church music director and sawmill operator.
He also adopted the mantra, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”
Dahmer died Jan. 10, 1966, from smoke inhalation after two carloads of Ku Klux Klan members had firebombed the family home in retaliation for his civil rights activities. The blaze also severely injured his 10-year-old daughter, Bettie, when the heat caused part of the skin to separate from her arm.
Dahmer also organized and facilitated numerous voter-registration drives at the Forrest County Courthouse, hosted many Freedom Summer and Freedom School activists at his farm and spoke at a Freedom Day picket in January 1964 at the courthouse.
The longtime activist also was highly regarded by many blacks and whites for his willingness to help those in need. For example, he plowed the field of a white farmer who had a leg amputation, Ellie Dahmer recalled.
Nevertheless, after the firebombing, an insurance company returned a check to the family. Also, the fire department about 6 miles from the home took 15 minutes to arrive and brought a grossly inadequate amount of water to fight the conflagration — all examples of institutionalized racism, explained Ellie Dahmer, an educator who was elected Nov. 3, 1992, to the Forrest County Election Commission.
Houser praised Dahmer for his activism that began when he joined the local NAACP chapter in the 1940s. His civil rights activities continued for the rest of his life, as he sought to do what he felt was right “with no peer pressure” early on, Houser observed.
Dahmer’s family’s willingness to forgive the patriarch’s killers also had a profound effect on Houser via reinforcing the feeling that letting go of hatred and bitterness can be life-saving.
On Wednesday, the Sojourn group followed part of the family to Dahmer’s gravesite a few miles from Ellie Dahmer’s residence, then saw a newly erected statue of him mounted at the courthouse in downtown Hattiesburg. While at the cemetery, the participants were handed voter-registration forms to honor Dahmer.
The students and adults also learned about a clandestine, all-white state-sponsored organization composed of politicians, state lawmakers, judges, bankers, police officers, businessmen and others called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which Gov. James P. Coleman organized.
The MSC, which sought to preserve segregation, spied on many civil rights workers as well as citizens opposed to segregation, then created files on them based on intelligence gleaned via infiltrating meetings, collecting license plate numbers and paying neighbors $100 for information, which was given to the Ku Klux Klan. By 1964, more than 10,000 such files were kept — in one of which it was decided not to castrate a black man for speaking to a white woman, the Sojourn group was told.
In addition, the MSC, which continued into the 1970s, provided information to Klan members that was responsible for at least 10 killings, Jeff Steinberg, Sojourn’s founder and director, noted.
A key difference between the civil rights era and today is that fewer people are overtly racist, but white supremacy – which Houser equated with terrorism –is still too often confused with patriotism and upholding the Constitution, she said.
Nevertheless, the Dahmer family’s example has shown Houser that activism may often be exhausting, difficult and seemingly devoid of results, but that it’s vital to continue forward.
“I always have to have hope things will get better — that what I’m doing to make things better will make things better,” she added.