A giant leap forward

By DAVID GUSTAFSON,

Fifty-four years after the Ku Klux Klan firebombed the home of Hattiesburg civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer, you would be hard-pressed to find many people who remember the names of the cowards from Jones County who were responsible for the heinous crime.

As far as we’re concerned, the names of those spineless thugs who supported and/or condoned the deaths of brave men like Dahmer, should be forgotten along with the things for which they stood.

There are, however, at least two names that Mississippi school children should be required to memorize for their courageous efforts to bring justice for the murder of Vernon Dahmer.

Hattiesburg’s James K. Dukes, 84, was the prosecuting attorney during the original 1968 trials and deserves credit for obtaining the first-ever conviction against a white murderer accused of killing a black Mississippian.

Unfortunately, it took until 1968 for that to happen.

Hattiesburg’s Robert “Bob” Helfrich, 66, was an assistant district attorney working for Lindsay Carter, when he successfully obtained a conviction in 1998 of the man believed to have ordered Dahmer’s murder

That suspected ringleader – a known racist from Laurel – was brought to trial five different times with each of the first four cases ending with a mistrial.

But it was some 32 years after Vernon Dahmer’s death, that a jury of Mississippians finally reached a guilty verdict and handed down a life sentence.  That man, who also was convicted in connection with the deaths of the three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, died in prison in 2006 at the age of 82.

Dukes and Helfrich, along with federal investigators and members of their respective legal teams, stood up when it mattered the most and for that, this community should be eternally grateful.

In all, 14 men were indicted in connection with Dahmer’s murder. Thirteen of them were eventually brought to trial, but only four were convicted (on state charges) and one other ultimately entered a guilty plea in exchange for testifying against his fellow Klansmen.

Both Helfrich, who is now a circuit court judge for the Twelfth Judicial District, and Dukes, who still practices law, were in attendance earlier this week when a larger-than-life statue of Dahmer was unveiled near the Forrest County Courthouse within a stone’s throw of a towering memorial to confiderate soldiers dedicated in 1910.

The statue of Dahmer, which was beautifully crafted by Pine Belt artists Ben Watts and Vixon Sullivan, stands at the end of a long, granite wall inscribed with the activist’s mantra: “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”

Ironically, voting is something that Vernon Dahmer, Sr. never got to do.

Just a few days after the firebombing that took his life, Dahmer’s voter registration card finally. arrived in the mail.

With an overflowing crowd of more than 300 people on hand to show their support for her family, Dahmer’s widow, Ellie, now 94, took the microphone and quietly thanked everyone for coming. She also offered a special thanks to those who made the memorial possible – including the Forrest County Board of Supervisors and the City of Hattiesburg, which each earmarked $40,000 for the project.

“Remember,” she said. “Elections have consequences. Let’s remember to vote.”

Let us also remember to never again stand idly by and condone the type of evil that took Vernon Dahmer from his family – and from this community – far too soon.

Gustafson is the publisher of The Pine Belt News.