Mississippi lawmakers honored Vernon Dahmer (DAY’-mur) Sr. on Friday, 50 years after the civil rights leader was killed when Ku Klux Klansmen firebombed his family’s home near Hattiesburg.
Dahmer’s widow, Ellie, and several relatives received a standing ovation in the state Senate. Sunday is the anniversary of the attack on Dahmer, who defied the white segregationist power structure by registering black voters in the 1960s.
“I’m proud to be a citizen of the proud state of Mississippi,” Ellie Dahmer said in brief speech. She later fought tears as legislators lined up to hug her and shake her hand.
The ceremony is the latest in a long effort by Mississippi officials to recognize the troubled racial history of a state that still displays the Confederate battle emblem on its flag.
A jury in 1998 convicted one-time Klan leader Sam Bowers of murder and arson in the Dahmer case. Bowers received a life sentence and died in prison in 2006.
Democrat John Horhn — one of 13 black senators in the 52-member chamber — said Dahmer tried to register to vote in 1949, but his application was rejected by Luther Cox, a local clerk who was a known segregationist.
“Cox would only authorize a registration of an African-American if they could answer this question: ‘How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?'” Horhn said.
Dahmer was a farmer and shop owner and served as president of the county NAACP. His family’s home was a haven for young civil rights workers who were challenging state-sponsored racial oppression, and he became a Klan target in January 1966 when he went on the radio and announced he would pay the poll tax for people who couldn’t afford it.
His son Dennis Dahmer was 12 when his family’s home was firebombed, and he said Friday that he vividly recalls the attack. The younger Dahmer, who now lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, implored Mississippi lawmakers to move beyond symbolic gestures.
“Mississippi is a state that’s composed of a lot of different people, different backgrounds, different economic backgrounds, political thoughts,” Dennis Dahmer said. “And the only thing I would ask you is to have some sensitivity to that as you go about your business.”
In a brief interview outside the Senate chamber, Dennis Dahmer said he’s concerned about new barriers to voting rights and “the resistance to affordable health care.” Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, and Republican leaders have rejected the option to expand Medicaid under the health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law. The state also enacted a law four years ago requiring voters to show government-issued identification at the polls.
During the ceremony, Horhn read a letter to the Dahmer family from Obama: “With hearts full of courage and love, citizens like Vernon lived their lives in defense of equality and justice and endeavored to make our nation truer to itself.”