Felecia Young remembered the day she walked into the Forrest County Courthouse in Hattiesburg, Miss. with her 11-year-old son, 9-year-old daughter, and mother on August 17, 1998.
The streets were barricaded. Buildings and streets showed the faces of police officers who were on site in case of a riot. An Aryan organization had threatened to demonstrate. But Young was determined to bear witness.
She and her children found seats in the balcony of the humid, packed courthouse.
“We sat in the balcony area, way up high,” Young said. “I don’t think I’d ever seen that area open, but they had to open it because there were so many people coming that there wasn’t any where to sit downstairs.”
Young is a black woman, born and raised in Hattiesburg. She attended high school there and graduated from the local college, the University of Southern Mississippi.
After serving six years in the Air Force, during which she visited or lived in 13 countries and earned the rank of captain before her commitment was fulfilled, she returned home, where she and her husband decided to raise their family. It was there where she became familiar with the Ku Klux Klan and its acts of violence. And the charismatic leader of the Klan’s Mississippi White Knights, Sam Bowers, was perhaps the most hateful person of them all.
At the courthouse, Young felt anxious, anticipatory, and inquisitive at beginnings of Bowers’ trial – his fifth trial, in fact, for the murder of Vernon Dahmer Sr. 22 years earlier. She wanted to take in the moment. Most of all, she wanted her children to see Bowers and to remember people like him are real. They exist.
“I wanted (my children) to have that historical perspective,” Young said. “A lot of people have sacrificed their lives so that you could have a better life than they had had.”
Bowers’ hate of all colors and creeds not his own was well known in the South.
“Sam Bowers lived a life consumed with hate for African Americans,” Vernon Dahmer Jr. told the New York Times in 2006. “He caused a lot of pain, suffering and death for many individuals and families in my race. During his life, he never apologized or asked for forgiveness for his actions.”
For Young, the Klan was not an urban legend but very real, frightful terrorist organization. She recalled the terrifying moment when it became real to her as a child.
“At some point, we had some people come by, some white people drive by our house,” she said. “My grandfather was sitting on the front porch with his walking cane in his lap. And they stopped. They slowed down and stopped like they were going to do something. We think they thought he had a shotgun or some kind of gun in his lap, and they drove off real fast.”
Dahmer was a grocery store owner and a known civil rights activist, allowing blacks to pay their poll tax in his grocery store, paying for the right to vote. Bower had threatened to punish the elder Dahmer if he didn’t put a stop to his efforts. Like others in Hattiesburg, Dahmer refused. Others like Peggy Jean Connor.
Connor is Young’s mother. She also allowed Hattiesburg’s black citizens to pay their poll tax at her business, Jean’s Beauty Shop at 510 Mobile Street, and knew of Dahmer’s work in the community.
Connor, who turns 80 years old in October, became a licensed beautician at 14. She began another career after her salon went out of business, as a nurse technician at Forrest General Hospital, and held it down for 27 years.
She was secretary treasurer for the Council of Federated Organization in 1963, while teaching citizenship classes for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at True Light Baptist Church in Hattiesburg. She was executive secretary of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and was arrested for picketing in front of the Forrest County Courthouse in 1964. She sued the governor of Mississippi – and, on May 31, 1977, she won. Two years later, she received the Carter G. Woodson Award for Courage in Civil Rights.
And, at the time of Bower’s threats, she paid the poll tax.
“During that time, you had to pay poll tax to register to vote before you could vote,” Connor said; the tax had to be paid for two consecutive years in order to qualify for registration. “So we were trying to collect poll tax from people who were afraid to go to the courthouse to pay their poll tax.”
And people did. They trusted people like Connor and Dahmer to go in their stead to the courthouse to pay their poll tax for them. But the Klan didn’t choose to come after Connor and her family; it chose to go after Dahmer and his.
The poll tax was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1937. Mississippi was one of five states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Virginia, that upheld the poll tax. The twenty-fourth amendment, which sought to outlaw the poll tax, was submitted to the states for ratification on Sept. 24, 1962. The amendment’s ratification came on Jan. 23, 1964, outlawing the poll tax in federal elections.
Of the 50 states, Mississippi is the only one to reject the twenty-fourth amendment. The Supreme Court ruled the poll tax unconstitutional in all state elections with a 6-3 vote in 1966, but that decision came a few months too late for Dahmer.
On Jan. 10 of that year, two cars full of white men in white hoods spilled 12 gallons of gasoline on his home under the cover of night. His wife, Ellie, and two small children awoke to the sound of gunfire and the sight of black smoke. Inhaling smoke and badly burned, Dahmer defended his family against the hooded attackers and did his best to extinguish the flames, but there was too much damage. Both his home and his store burned to the ground.
The next morning, Connor said, she went to see the remains.
“It was still smoking,” she said. “I went to the hospital to visit him and he and his daughter were in the room together. He was in one bed and she was in another. And he was talking. I was just shocked when I heard that he had died. It hadn’t been an hour when I left the hospital and heard that he was dead. I couldn’t believe that.”
Dahmer died the next. He was 57. President Lyndon B. Johnson later sent a telegram to his wife, Ellie, expressing “deep concern and shock” over the attack.
“His work was in the best tradition of a democracy,” the President wrote. “His family can be justly proud as his work was a fine example of good citizenship.”
Young heard about the crime from her grandfather, John Henry Gould. She was eight years old.
“I was really small,” she said. “But I was really aware of the Civil Rights Movement and what my mama and my granddaddy where trying to accomplish. I remember somebody coming by to tell my grandfather that Vernon Dahmer had been killed and burnt out.”
Bowers was convicted of murder by a jury that consisted of six minority jurors and sentenced to life in prison, 32 years after his crime. He died in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at 82.
In the wake of Dahmer’s death, the Civil Rights Movement came into its own and permanently adjusted the lens through which race and class are viewed. It has ushered in much needed legislation and forced elected officials to become more transparent and vigilant while in office.
Hattiesburg elected its first black mayor, Johnny DuPree, in 2001. After achieving reelection twice, he is still in office. Last year, DuPree became the first black person to win a major party nomination to run for governor of Mississippi since Reconstruction, and he, like Connor, has urged young people to vote. But Connor is worried that the right to vote has become so impressed upon young people that they have become numb to it.
“It worries me that right here in Hattiesburg (young people) don’t think it’s necessary for them to do that,” she said. “You have to just plead with them to go and register. And then after registering, you have to beg them to go and vote. A lot of people don’t think it was as bad as it was back in the Fifties and Sixties.”
But perhaps there is hope for this generation: Circle, the center for information and research on civic learning and engagement, reported 23 million Americans under the age of 30 turned out to vote in 2008. The Times reported young black voters led all ethnic groups in voter turnout for the first time ever.
The socioeconomic results of the Civil Rights Movement could be best depicted in the lives of Connor’s two grandchildren. Both attended a predominantly white elementary school, Presbyterian Christian School, in that same Hattiesburg.
The 11-year-old son, this writer, has graduated from the University of Tulsa and is beginning his last semester of coursework in route to his master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma. The 9-year-old daughter is now majoring in biosystems and agricultural engineering at Oklahoma State University.
Neither child has ever been convicted of a crime. Both are registered voters. Both exercise that right.
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