Media Credit

Local people and Freedom Summer volunteers pile onto a flatbed trailer behind Vernon Dahmer’s tractor to go to a fish fry on his property at Kelly Settlement, July 4, 1964, Herbert Randall Freedom Summer photographs, USM

A Story from Here

Local NAACP president Vernon Dahmer was no rookie to civil rights activity in 1962, when SNCC field secretaries Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes came to Hattiesburg at his invitation. The two had been leaders of the McComb Movement and were the first Mississippi-born field secretaries to work in the state. Dahmer had heard of SNCC through his NAACP network and asked SNCC workers to come to Hattiesburg.

Vernon Dahmer had been actively fighting for first-class citizenship since the early fifties when he filed a suit against the Forrest County Sheriff for preventing Blacks to register to vote. He was an active member of the Forrest County NAACP branch, and served as its president for two years in the fifties.  In his work with the NAACP, Dahmer also worked closely with local Black youths, like Joyce and Dorie Ladner. He and Clyde Kennard would take interested youths to NAACP state mass meetings in Jackson, 94 miles away.

Because SNCC’s Watkins and Hayes lived with Dahmer and worked on his farm, he let them use this pickup truck when they needed transportation. This was no small thing since community organizing entailed canvassing various communities to meet local people and drum up support.  Most importantly, Dahmer introduced the young SNCC field secretaries to his network throughout Hattiesburg and Forrest County thus giving them valuable credibility because of his endorsement.

When Sandra Adickes, a Freedom School teacher, first came to Hattiesburg two years later, she was introduced to the Black community via a Fourth of July party hosted by Dahmer. “We were meeting people, and I remember having a good time.  And I remember encountering one of the best things about Mississippi as far as I’m concerned: the pink and purple twilights here are just stunning.”  While Dahmer was not responsible for the magnificent twilights, he did use his house, his property, and his businesses as a means to bring people together in the cause of civil rights.

Dahmer was murdered in 1966, when local klansmen firebombed his home.

Local Landscape

Vernon Dahmer lived and farmed in the Kelly Settlement community, outside of Hattiesburg, MS. Hattiesburg and the southeast quadrant of Mississippi was demographically and economically distinct from the Delta, which was the other area in the state where SNCC invested itself heavily. Instead of massive cotton plantations worked by black sharecroppers, Forrest County consisted of small farms owned by independent landowners. Dahmer, for instance, owned a 300 acre commercial cotton farm, on which he produced 100 cotton bales along with other food crops to support his grocery store.  The city offered other avenues to economic success that were not present in the Delta, as well. Victoria Gray, another staunch movement supporter, owned her own cosmetics firm. This economic independence enabled people like Dahmer and Gray to become influential civil rights activists, protecting them at least partially from white economic reprisals. However, not everybody with the financial means participated fully in the movement. Some Black businessmen, professionals, and factory workers were more likely to support the Movement clandestinely through cash donations, rather than putting their bodies on the line.

References

Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle
Interview with Hollis Watkins, 1996, USM
Interview with Ellie Dahmer, 1974, USM
Interview with Sandra Adickes, 1999, USM