Forrest County honors slain civil rights hero Vernon F. Dahmer Sr.

By BETH BUNCH,

“Remember, elections have consequences. Let’s remember to vote!”

Those were the words 94-year-old Ellie Dahmer left with the large crowd gathered at the dedication of her late husband’s statue Monday morning in downtown Hattiesburg. The statue dedication and unveiling was held just four days short of the 54th anniversary of Vernon F. Dahmer Sr.’s death from injuries he sustained in a firebombing of his home by the Ku Klux Klan in 1966.  It was Dahmer’s work during the Civil Rights movement to help African Americans to register to vote that cost him his life.

The newly-erected plaza on the front lawn of the Forrest County Courthouse is positioned within a stone’s throw from a Confederate War Memorial, and features a larger-than-life bronze statue of Vernon F. Dahmer Sr. and a wall bearing his mantra, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”

The plaza has been two years in the making as District 1 Forrest County Supervisor and Board President David Hogan first spoke to Ellie Dahmer during the Forrest County Christmas party in 2017.

“I never thought I’d see this in Hattiesburg in my lifetime,” Dahmer had said on several occasions. On Monday, she reiterated that thought.

“Never as a child growing up in Jasper County did I imagine I would be standing here today. Mississippi has changed. This statue of my husband is proof of this. My family and I are grateful for everyone that made this statue a reality.”

A number of members of the Dahmer family were on hand for the dedication and unveiling of the statue, including great-great grandchildren who never knew Mr. Dahmer.

The Rev. Dr. Reginald Woullard, pastor of Shady Grove Baptist Church, where the Dahmer family has long been members, prayed for the same type of courage Dahmer possessed.

Thank you and praise you for this pivotal moment in this city and this community. Thank you for the life and legacy of our dear brother, Vernon Dahmer Sr. Thank you for the courage and the will to act in defiance against racism and bigotry in this area.

Let that same spirit run in our minds and heart, fight for justice and equality for all people of all walks of life, all race and creed in the human family.

Thank you, God, for this administration, both city and county, who set aside this special time in the history of our city and we pray that all over this globe the road will lead to this statue and others will be inspired to fight for the justice and quality of all people.

Vernon Dahmer Sr. was recognized as a landowner, farmer, grocer, sawmill and plain mill operator, employer, church music director, father of eight, multi-term president of the Forrest County branch of the NAACP and co-founder of the youth chapter.

Dahmer was murdered the day after he publically offered to collect and pay his fellow citizens poll taxes. An irony, but his murderer, Sam Bowers, was found guilty on Aug. 21, 1998, on the very site where the statue was dedicated

Percy Watson, representative for District 103, noted Monday as a historical occasion.

“I come to you on behalf of the 174 members of the Mississippi Legislature, who will assemble in Jackson at noon tomorrow (Tuesday),” he said. “When we assemble this will be the most racially diverse legislature that has assembled in Mississippi in modern times and it is because of the contributions and efforts of Vernon Dahmer.”

Watson mentioned the many people in the large crowd who have been affected, assisted, helped, and enhanced because of the works of Dahmer.

“Many years ago, he saw this community not for what it was at that time, but what it could be. We have come a long way by fate, but we realize we still have a distance to go.”

Michael Randolph, chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, lauded the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, who worked on the Dahmer project.

“They epitomize the motto (of Forrest County) – strength from the past, vision for the future, –  and that’s what today is.”

Randolph said that for Vernon Sr. “no mission was too difficult and no sacrifice too great.” “He took on the most difficult of missions and he gave the ultimate sacrifice, his life. Vernon Dahmer did more than lay down his life for his friends. He lay down his life for people he didn’t know.

The seven-foot statue was the creation of Pine Belt sculptors Ben Watts and Vixon Sullivan who worked with the Dahmer family to create an exact likeness to the Civil Rights activist.

Hogan thanked those who brough this project, long in the making, to fruition, including members of the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, Mayor Toby Barker and the Hattiesburg City Council, Forrest General Hospital, Southern Mississippi Planning and Development District, Finlo Construction Co. Inc., H.A. Moore, McMahan Family, Doleac Family and the Bass Family Trust. Hogan also thanked members of the committee who guided this project to completion.