Vernon Dahmer, Sr. was an American civil rights leader and president of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Dahmer led voter registration drives in the 1960s and began keeping a voter registration book in his grocery store in late 1965 to make it easier for African Americans to register. He often said, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” words that were used as his epitaph.
Members of the Mississippi White Knights, the state’s most violent Klan group, kept a close eye on him. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center:
…when Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers spoke to the local klavern about putting a stop to civil rights activity, Dahmer’s name was always mentioned. At one such meeting, according to Klansmen who were there, Bowers said Dahmer was a “Project 3” or a “Project 4.” In Klan code, Project 3 meant arson; Project 4 meant murder.”
On Jan. 9, 1966, Dahmer made a public offer to collect poll taxes for his neighbors so they wouldn’t have to go to the courthouse. He said on a radio broadcast that he would even pay the taxes for those who couldn’t afford it.
The next night, on this day in history, Dahmer woke to the sound of gunshots and exploding firebombs. Two or three carloads of White Knights Klansmen had pushed their way into the Dahmer home and ignited 12 one-gallon containers of gasoline. While the house and adjacent store were on fire, shots were fired at the home by the Klansmen. Dahmer returned fire from a window in the house in order to hold off the Klansmen while Dahmer’s wife, Ellie, and their small children escaped from a rear window. His family survived the attack, although his ten-year-old daughter had to be hospitalized for severe burns, but Dahmer died as a result of his burns the next day. The Dahmers’ home, store and car were all destroyed.
President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered an immediate FBI investigation, and thirteen men, most with Ku Klux Klan connections, were brought to trial for the attack. Four were convicted, but three out those four were pardoned within four years. Former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, who was believed to have ordered the murder, was tried four times, but each ended in a mistrial. (He eventually served six years in prison for his role in the 1964 killing of civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.)
In August 1991, the case was reopened, and in 1998, Bowers was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2006 in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at the age of 82.
In 1992, Dahmer’s widow, Ellie, was elected election commissioner of District 2, Forrest County. For more than a decade, she served in this position, supported by both black and white residents, in the same district where her husband was killed for his voting rights advocacy.