Before Jan. 10, 1966, I lived in a virtually segregated vacuum in my hometown of Hattiesburg. The civil rights movement was happening all around me, and I was oblivious.
We were nearly two years removed from Freedom Summer. I was 13, a seventh-grader, probably more worried about my next junior high basketball game or round of golf than what was happening to fellow citizens who lived on the other side of town and went to different schools, worshipped at different churches and rarely came into contact with my friends or me.
That changed on Jan. 10, 1966, when Ku Klux Klan thugs from neighboring Jones County under the cover of night fired-bombed the home of Vernon Dahmer Sr., a black farmer/businessman, who lived in Kelly Settlement community just outside our town. The reason Dahmer was targeted? Because he was active in trying to register black folks to vote, knowing the danger inherent in what he was doing.
The horrific scene is described by historian William Sturkey in his book “HATTIESBURG: An American City in Black and White”: At about 2:30 in the morning on January 10, 1966, Klansmen laid siege to the home of voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer and his family. Two of the attackers ran toward the house under the cover of gunfire and tossed gasoline-filled containers through the windows followed by a flaming cloth that ignited the containers. As the fire spread, the Klansmen fired a continuous stream of bullets into the home. Vernon Dahmer leaned against his front door, returning fire as he could while his wife Ellie, ten-year-old daughter, and two sons, aged twelve and twenty, scrambled to escape the burning house. After Ellie managed to pop out a back window, the family fled into a barn located behind the house. Vernon Dahmer saved his family that night but later succumbed to severe burns on his head, upper body and arms. He was fifty-seven years old when he died …
James Meredith had integrated Ole Miss amid a riot and with the help of 30,000 federal troops four years before. Medgar Evers had been killed three years before in Jackson. The Selma to Montgomery March, led by Martin Luther King Jr., was a year earlier.
None of those earlier events snared my attention like the Dahmer murder. This was my hometown. Dennis Dahmer, Vernon Dahmer’s youngest son, was my age. Dennis had saved his older brother’s life that night. Here was a youngster my age, in my hometown, who had lost his father and his home for no good reason. Three of Dennis’s older brothers at the time were serving in the U.S. military, helping protect us while nobody had protected their family. I couldn’t put that out of my mind. It was both horrifying and life-changing. This much is certain: It forever changed the way I felt about race relations. I lived in a segregated vacuum no more. That was the case for many who lived in my hometown.
The Dahmer murder happened 54 years ago this Friday. So let’s fast-forward to this bright, warm Monday morning when a large crowd, black and white and many in tears, gathered for the unveiling of a bronzed statue of Vernon Dahmer, Sr., outside the Forrest County Courthouse on Main Street in Hattiesburg.
Ellie Dahmer, 94-year-old widow of Vernon Dahmer, stood as tall as she could and spoke briefly, but eloquently.
“Mississippi has changed,” she said. “This statue is proof of it.”
This will be the short version of a much longer story of this statue and how it came to be.
The sculpted statue is the brainchild of 52-year-old David Hogan, president of the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, who was born two years after Vernon Dahmer’s murder. Hogan, a white man who ran as a Republican, credits his father’s influence as his impetus for spearheading the move toward erecting a statue.
“My dad raised us to respect people of all races,” said Hogan, the son of an obstetrician who insisted black mothers be treated just as his white patients in the Hattiesburg hospitals where he delivered babies of both races. “Before my dad moved here, minority patients were sent to midwives to have their babies delivered. My dad changed that.”
Hogan said he had been looking for a project to honor his father – and his father’s teachings – and decided to approach the Dahmer family with the idea of the courthouse statue. The Dahmer family agreed. Forrest County supervisors – three white, two black – voted unanimously in favor of the project. The City of Hattiesburg and Mayor Toby Barker became involved, as well as several local businesses.
The result is a handsome bronze sculpture – the work of Ben Watts and Vixon Sullivan – which gleamed Monday in the morning sunshine.
Said Hogan, “It does not erase all the terrible things that happened back then – including what happened to the Dahmer family – but it’s important for future generations to know what happened and what this good man did and what he stood for. I am proud of this. It was the right thing to do.”
In his book, Sturkey wrote that Dahmer’s murder caused “a sea change” in the civil rights movement in the Hattiesburg area, both for blacks and whites. If anything, it emboldened African Americans to continue Dahmer’s work. And it opened the eyes of many white folks to the horrors of such virulent racism.
Reg Woullard, the former Ole Miss football standout who is now the pastor of Shady Grove Baptist Church where the Dahmers worship, called Dahmer’s murder “a pivotal moment” in Hattiesburg race relations.
“As a child I was flabbergasted by the very idea that people would murder a man just because he was trying to help people register to vote.” Woullard said. “In retrospect, I think it changed the way blacks and whites in this area thought about race. It was a horrible thing to happen, but out of it came a lot of good.”
Vernon Dahmer, Sr., was a farmer, a businessman, a community leader and a civil rights leader who publicly offered to pay poll taxes for anyone who wanted to vote but could not afford to pay the tax. Dahmer, Sr., worked hand-in-hand with Medgar Evers. The two were close friends and Reena Evers-Everette, Medgar’s daughter, was in the crowd of hundreds Monday.
“This statue and ceremony are so well-deserved,” Evers-Everette said. “I am just thrilled to see a man of such courage, integrity, intelligence and compassion honored in this way.”
She was not alone. Many watched the ceremony through moist, teary eyes.
Percy Watson, a representative who has served in the Mississippi Legislature for 40 years, said that when the Legislature convenes Tuesday it will be “the most racially diverse assembly” since Reconstruction. Clearly, such an assembly would not have happened if not for the courageous sacrifices that cost people such as Dahmer and Evers their lives.
Dahmer’s statue sits atop a wall that bears his motto: “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”
Above all else, Vernon Dahmer made certain all people counted – and people cared.
Ironically and tragically, Dahmer never voted in the courthouse where his statue now stands. His voter registration card came in the mail just after his funeral.
Nevertheless, as Watson put it, “Vernon Dahmer saw Hattiesburg not for what it was but what it could be. We have come a long way. We still have a distance to go, but, as this statue shows, we work together in Hattiesburg.”
Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been asports columnist for Mississippi Today since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, he is a former sports editor at The Hattiesburg American.