The University of Southern Mississippi is awarding an honorary degree to civil rights activist Ellie Dahmer, who worked alongside her husband to register African American voters during some of the most violent years of segregation.
Vernon Dahmer was a farmer and shop owner and served as president of the Forrest County NAACP in south Mississippi. The Dahmer family home was a haven for young civil rights workers who were challenging state-sponsored racial oppression in the 1950s and 1960s.
Ellie Dahmer taught in the black Forrest County schools in the 1950s but her contract was not renewed because of her husband’s advocacy of equal rights for African Americans.
The state imposed poll taxes as one way to suppress voting rights, and the Dahmers would collect the money in their store as a way to empower other African Americans to register to vote.
In January 1966, Vernon Dahmer went on the radio and announced he would pay poll taxes for people who could not afford them. The Ku Klux Klan firebombed the Dahmers’ Hattiesburg home hours later, in the dark of night. Dahmer shot at the attackers as his family escaped. His lungs were seared in the fire, and he died in a local hospital.
The presentation of the honorary degree to Ellie Dahmer is being made Friday during graduation on the university’s main campus in Hattiesburg.
USM Dean of Students Emeritus Eddie A. Holloway said in a news release from the university that Ellie Dahmer “stood strong and exemplified tenacity and personal conviction” while serving her community and her family.
“While facing her tragedy, she continued to be a resource for others who depended on her for inspiration and support,” Holloway said. “Mrs. Dahmer is a civil rights icon in Mississippi as well as America.”
The Mississippi Senate honored the Dahmer family in January 2016, commemorating their legacy 50 years after Vernon Dahmer’s death.
The Mississippi Civil rights Museum opened in 2017 and includes a prominent display about the Dahmer family.
A statue of Vernon Dahmer was unveiled this month outside the Forrest County Courthouse in Hattiesburg.
A jury in 1998 convicted one-time Klan leader Sam Bowers of murder and arson in the Dahmer case. Bowers received a life sentence and died in prison in 2006.
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