Valley Sojourners keep on marching into the past

Correspondent photos / Sean Barron Sojourn to the Past students, including several from the Mahoning Valley, cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Saturday in a manner reminiscent of the 1965 marchers.

HATTIESBURG, Mississippi — A severe argument with an older brother led to Sarah Kent severing ties with him for about three years, and, after a brief reconciliation, a second argument in the heat of the moment resulted in an additional 18 months of silence between them.

“The second that came out of my mouth, I wanted to suck it back in,” Kent, 16, a Chaney High School sophomore said Sunday about the comment she said she made that led to the siblings’ second falling out.

Thanks to having met the family of longtime civil rights activist Vernon F. Dahmer, however, she intends to do a major patchwork project.

“Their story really, really touched me. As adults, they’re united as a family, and that’s what I want,” she added.

Kent was among the Youngstown area high school students, along with a large San Francisco Bay Area contingent, who met several family members of Dahmer, who was killed Jan. 10, 1966, after two carloads of Klansmen firebombed his home and grocery store on the property because of his civil rights activities that included helping poor blacks pay their $2 poll taxes to register to vote. He died of smoke inhalation at age 57.

The group met the family patriarch’s wife, Ellie J. Dahmer; son, Dennis Dahmer; and daughter, Bettie Dahmer at their rebuilt home outside of Hattiesburg, and Kent learned that, despite the horrific tragedy that befell the family, the three of them found the strength to forgive the killers — a slice of redemption that resonated deeply with Kent and strengthened her desire to forgive her brother and repair the damage done to their relationship.

The group also traveled to Dahmer’s gravesite, then visited the outside of the Forrest County Courthouse, where a statue of him has been erected.

Since the 1940s, Dahmer, whose mantra was “If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” was active with the Forrest County NAACP and raised a large family on the Kelly Settlement, named after a former slave owner.

The family members told the Sojourn group that Dahmer was more than willing to assist anyone in need — black or white. One day, he learned about a man who lived nearby and had part of his leg amputated after an accident, then plowed the man’s field voluntarily. He also left jugs of gasoline along the rural road for travelers who ran out of gas, and didn’t ask for payment, the family recalled.

Beginning in 1956, Mississippi Gov. J.P. Coleman launched the all-white state Sovereignty Commission, formed in an effort to preserve complete segregation. The commission, with Thomas Scarbrough, former head of the Mississippi Highway Patrol, acting as chief investigator, consisted largely of bankers, police officers, lawyers, judges and others who kept files on civil rights workers and ordinary residents who wrote letters to the editors of their newspapers in support of the civil rights movement, then fed that information to the Ku Klux Klan. Sometimes described as “the largest state-sponsored spying effort in U.S. history,” members often infiltrated rights workers’ meetings, gathered license plate numbers and offered money for information about those they were targeting. The commission operated well into the 1970s.

The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in nearby Laurel, Mississippi, and run by Imperial Wizard Samuel H. Bowers, developed a coded system from one to four regarding what they felt should be done to civil rights workers against whom they had amassed files regarding their activities, such as trying to register blacks to vote. A one ranking meant warning someone; a four signified killing a person, and Dahmer had a “four.”

After Dahmer’s killing, 14 men were charged with murder and arson, then in 1968, four were convicted, including Cecil Sessums, thought to be the first white man to be convicted of killing a black in Mississippi, though soon after, the governor granted pardons to several of the men. In May 1991, Forrest County District Attorney Glenn White reopened the case, but it took until Aug. 21, 1998, to convict Bowers, who gave the order to kill Dahmer. In his fourth trial, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Dennis Dahmer told the Youngstown and San Francisco students that the family rebuilt their home in the same place as the one that had been attacked, in part to send a message that they refused to be intimidated or leave the area. Dahmer added that he and other family members hope to use their story of tragedy, redemption, hope and the importance of forgiving those who wronged them as a means to reinforce the value of treating others fairly. He also speaks to the groups to motivate, inspire and encourage them, he said.


On Saturday in Selma, Alabama, the group met Joanne Bland, who shared her story of having been on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, a day infamously known as “Bloody Sunday.” She and her sister, Linda, were among the 600 peaceful marchers who were beaten and brutalized by the Alabama state troopers — some of whom rode horses over the fallen victims.

In a show of solidarity with those who participated in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, the students and adults crossed the bridge in twos — reminiscent of the original marchers.

In the early 1960s, Bland, who served in the U.S. Army, began her civil rights activism with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after being appalled by how she saw many blacks being treated. For her work in the movement, Bland had 13 documented arrests by age 11.

Today, she owns and operates a touring agency called Journeys for the Soul, and speaks regularly to Sojourn groups hoping the young people will feel empowered to become what she calls “history makers.”

On Saturday, Bland took the group to the site where the five-day march began and gave a few examples of how racism directly impacted her — specifically, seeing the death of her mother who needed a blood transfusion but couldn’t get the blood from a white hospital, as well as witnessing white girls at a counter in Carter’s Drug Store but not being able to join them because of her skin color.

Nevertheless, she urged her young audience to use their individual power to make positive differences in their communities and beyond. She also drew a parallel between social activism and completing a complex puzzle.

“I believe social movements are like a jigsaw puzzle: Every one of you is a unique and special piece,” she said.

Bland also encouraged the students to tap into their inherent power to lead effective and worthy social-justice causes, as well as realize they can take the torch from civil rights activists before them.

“That’s what’s wrong with the world, your voice hasn’t been heard. You are the ones we have been waiting for.”

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