What One Family Sacrificed To Help Black People Vote In 1966

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Ellie Dahmer holds a photo of her late husband, Vernon.

Vernon Dahmer was a black civil rights leader in the mid-1960s, when Mississippians were still required to pay a poll tax in order to register to vote. In January 1966, the successful farmer and businessman publicly offered to pay that tax for black people who couldn't afford it.

That night his house was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan. His wife and three of his children were at home.

"We didn't think anybody would bother the children, but we were wrong, they intended to get all of us January the 10th, 1966," Vernon's widow, Ellie Dahmer, told their daughter Bettie during a recent visit to StoryCorps.

"That night, when I waked up, the house was on fire, and it was so bright and so hot. You was screaming to the top of your voice, 'Lord have mercy. We're going to get burned up in this house alive.' I raised the windows up, and then your father was handing you out the window to me."

They escaped to the barn to hide, sitting on bales of hay.

"I had burns over a good portion of my body, and I was screaming and crying because I was in pain," recalled Bettie, who was 10 at the time. "Daddy was burned so much worse than I was — when he held up his arm the skin just hung down — but Daddy never did complain, he was just concerned about me. I remember us going to the hospital."

Vernon and Bettie shared a hospital room, with Ellie sitting between the two beds.

"And he yelled my name real loud, and then he was gone," she said. "He knew that he might get killed, and he was willing to take the risk, but it was not worth it to me. I miss him so much."

Bettie, who is now 61, looks at the situation differently.

"Daddy wasn't a man that wore a suit, he wore overalls. In Daddy's world everybody had a job to do," she said. "Black people couldn't vote, so I do understand why he did what he did. It meant a lot to him."

And that commitment he had to the cause is reflected on his resting place.

"Some of the last words he said was, 'If you don't vote, you don't count.' That's on his tombstone," Ellie said. "We made a tremendous sacrifice Bettie. I try to go on and live my life without thinking about it, but it's a night I can never forget. It's been over 50 years, and seems like it were yesterday."

Ellie Dahmer would go on to serve as an election commissioner in Hattiesburg, Miss., and the governor of Mississippi declared Jan. 10, 2016, "Vernon Dahmer Day," to honor the civil rights leader.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall and Liyna Anwar.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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