By the time he was middle-aged, Vernon Dahmer had overcome the handicaps of racial discrimination and a 10th-grade education to become a wealthy businessman. He owned a 200-acre commercial farm just north of Hattiesburg, Miss., as well as a sawmill and a grocery store.
African Americans and whites alike had tremendous respect for Dahmer. His businesses provided much-needed jobs for the rural community, and farmers could always count on him to lend a hand at harvest time.
Dahmer never lost sight of the struggle most black Americans faced. He was elected president of the local NAACP and urged his friends and neighbors to vote. “If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” many people heard him say.
Members of the Mississippi White Knights, the state’s most violent Klan group, kept a close eye on him. 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.
After the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, a new sense of hope led more and more black people to the polls. 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.
That night, Ellie and Vernon Dahmer woke to the sound of gunshots and exploding firebombs. Dahmer grabbed a gun and went to his front door. While the fire raged, he stood in his doorway, inhaling the burning fumes and returning gunfire while his family escaped. When it was over, Dahmer’s home and the nearby store were destroyed. His 10-year-old daughter was hospitalized with severe burns. Dahmer’s lungs were irreparably damaged. He died shortly afterward.
The death of Dahmer and the destruction of his home and store sparked a reaction that must have surprised the Klansmen. White officials and community leaders were genuinely outraged. The Hattiesburg City Council set up a relief fund for the family, and a white-owned bank made the first donation. Whites and blacks alike donated furniture, clothes and materials to rebuild the Dahmer home. Local officials pledged their full resources to solve the crime.
President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered an immediate FBI investigation, one that led to arson and murder charges against 14 Klansmen. One pleaded guilty to arson, and three more were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Bowers and another Klansman were freed by hung juries, however.
In August 1991, the case was reopened, and in 1998, Bowers was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2006 at the age of 82. He had previously served six years in federal prison on civil rights violations in connection with the murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County in 1964.
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.