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.”