Vernon Dahmer murdered
Vernon Dahmer had been working on behalf of the Black community of Hattiesburg and Forrest County, Mississippi for years. In March of 1962, he invited SNCC field secretaries Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes into Hattiesburg to help coordinate voting registration efforts he wanted to accelerate in the region. The successful businessman and farmer was an NAACP leader, but he felt that the local chapter’s agenda was weak and had grown impatient with it.
Dahmer was viewed by many as “quite a militant person.” When he contacted the SNCC workers, he was leading a campaign to have his close friend, Clyde Kennard, released from Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi’s notorious maximum security prison, where he had been imprisoned after conviction on trumped up charges after trying to enroll in Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi. At the time, Dahmer told Watkins and Hayes, he “had a business and didn’t have the time to organize” but was “willing to support somebody who had the time to do it.” Local and state NAACP officials were less than enthusiastic at Dahmer’s plan to bring SNCC workers to Hattiesburg.
The Movement Dahmer was trying to build with SNCC’s help got off to a slow start. Fearing white retaliation, local churches were afraid to open their doors for any sort of voting rights activity. Eventually, a small church in the community of Palmer’s Crossing on the south side of Hattiesburg agreed to let young organizers hold meetings. By 1963, Dahmer, along with other local leaders like Victoria Gray, Peggy Jean Connor, and John Henry Gould, partnered with the young SNCC organizers and facilitated Hattiesburg’s budding Freedom Movement. The emphasis was on voter registration, or in a broader sense, empowering Black people.
The Movement gradually made headway, and on January 22, 1964, a large group of Black community members attempted to register at the Forrest County courthouse in Hattiesburg. Roughly 50 northern white clergymen who answered SNCC’s call for outside support picketed the courthouse while more than 150 Black people courageously attempted to line up to register to vote. Only a mere handful of people were allowed into the building, and few of them were actually added to the voting rolls. Afterward, some individuals were fired from their jobs; others were threatened with violence.
By summer, Dahmer had successfully created a broad-based Hattiesburg Movement, which hosted the largest Freedom Summer project in the state. More than 50 volunteers and COFO staff working on voter registration initiatives and Freedom Schools were in the city and county. Police intimidation and retaliatory violence by white racists increased. Death threats were made against the Dahmer family.
These were not empty threats and continued after the 1964 summer project ended. Members of the Mississippi White Knights, the state’s most violent Ku Klux Klan group, kept a close eye on Dahmer. On January 9, 1966, he announced on the radio that he was willing to collect poll taxes at his store in the Kelly Settlement in order to encourage voter registration. He said he was willing to pay people’s poll taxes if they could not afford the fee.
The next day, Dahmer’s farm was firebombed by local Ku Klux Klan members His wife Ellie recalls, “when I waked up, I heard shooting and blazes; it looked like the house was on fire… you could hear gun shoots coming from the house.” Dahmer’s home and store burned to the ground, nothing left but ashes. Dahmer later died of smoke inhalation and severe burns. Even on his deathbed, Dahmer still encouraged his community to register to vote. Dahmer’s murder made clear the commitment and risks ordinary Black people were willing to make and take in order to improve their overall quality of life.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 81, 180-181, 391.
Faith Holsaert, et al., eds., Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 213, 236, 237.
“The Murder of Vernon Dahmer,” Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.