A Tribute to Vernon Dahmer and the Right to Vote; and why the priviledge of leading necessitates the responsibility of voting

by johndavis, February 9, 2011

“Pitts puts finger on Sessum, other Klansmen; Names seven he said accompanied him in fatal fire-bombing raid on Dahmer place”  Hattiesburg AMERICAN, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, March 14, 1968  Post: February 9, 2011       Vol. IV, #4  The Murder of Vernon Dahmer for Registering Blacks to Vote   There they were! I knew that I had kept them. 

Pitts puts finger on Sessum, other Klansmen; Names seven he said accompanied him in fatal fire-bombing raid on Dahmer place”  Hattiesburg AMERICAN, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, March 14, 1968 
Post: February 9, 2011       Vol. IV, #4 
The Murder of Vernon Dahmer for Registering Blacks to Vote

There they were! I knew that I had kept them.  Finally, after an hour and a half of digging through a lifetime of dusty boxes in the attic last Sunday night I found the newspaper articles I had clipped almost 43 years ago from the Hattiesburg AMERICAN, the daily paper in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the county seat of Forrest County.  I carefully unfolded each of the eight faded and brittle articles one at a time, reading and remembering:

  • Thursday, Jan. 25, 1968  11 charged with murder and arson
  • Friday, Mar. 8, 1968, Pitts pleads guilty to Dahmer charges; Anticipated state's witness faces life on murder count plus long arson sentence
  • Monday, Mar. 11, 1968, Selection of jury begins for Sessum murder trial
  • Tuesday, Mar. 12, 1968, Jury completed for Sessum murder trial; pistol removed from purse carried by defendant's wife
  • Wednesday, Mar. 13, 1968, Car brought into trial testimony; FBI agent says bullet-marked auto belonged to one defendant
  • Thursday, Mar. 14, 1968, Pitts puts finger on Sessum, other Klansmen; Names seven he said accompanied him in fatal fire-bombing raid on Dahmer place
  • Friday, Mar. 15, 1968, Defense tries hard to discredit Pitts; … the verdict. 

On the night of January 10, 1966, Vernon Dahmer, 58, an African American businessman who served as President of the Forrest County NAACP, was murdered when his house and store in a rural community just north of Hattiesburg were firebombed by a raiding party of 13 members of the Ku Klux Klan.  Dahmer, along with his wife and three children, escaped from their burning home by breaking a back bedroom window and climbing out, running to the barn to hide.

Before escaping the inferno, Dahmer ran into the blazing front living room and returned fire with his shotgun through the picture window.  He was burned about the head, arms, and upper body.  He died the next day.

Why did the KKK want Dahmer dead?  Because a year earlier he had placed a voter registration book in his store and was working to get black voters to sign up.  That was it.  He had the audacity to register black voters.

Throughout the 20th century, a variety of means to keep blacks from voting were enacted into law, from literacy tests to a $2 poll tax.  Pictured here is a receipt for a $2.00 POLL TAX, FOR THE YEAR 1936.  The relative buying power of $2.00 in 1936 is $31.30 today.  Can you imagine how many people you know who would vote today if they had to pay $31.30?

However, the most intimidating means of discouraging blacks from voting was the threat of violence routinely made by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Trial of Klansman Cecil Victor Sessum, the “Little Preacher”

I was a student at William Carey College in Hattiesburg in 1968 when the first defendant, Cecil Sessum, was tried for the murder of Vernon Dahmer.  I cut classes the entire week of March 11 - 15, 1968 to attend the trial.  I sat in the crowded gallery in the courtroom of the Forrest County Courthouse, just behind the sketch artists from the national TV news. 

Cecil Victor Sessum was the 32-year-old Exalted Cyclops of Klavern No. 4, White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.  His fellow Klansmen called him “Little Preacher,” because he was a preacher.  The list of defendants included Sam Bowers, Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.  Bowers was involved in the murder of the three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964: Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.

Security was very tight.  Heavily armed deputies were at every door, both outside the courthouse and inside the courtroom.  Everyone who wanted to enter had to be searched.

Monday: Jury Selection, the White Defendant and the Colored Deceased

Monday, the first day of the trial, was devoted to jury selection.  The district attorney was very careful in asking potential jurors if they could blind themselves to the fact that "the defendant is white and the deceased was colored."  Throughout the day, those called for jury duty were dismissed for many reasons including health or financial hardship, a work related issue, or because they did not believe in capital punishment.

On Tuesday, we realized just how important those daily searches of spectators were when we found out that the wife of Cecil Sessum had tried to enter the courtroom that morning with a 38 caliber pistol in her purse.  The judge ordered that the incident be kept quiet until the jury was selected, for fear that it would taint the selection process.  We found out about Mrs. Sessum’s 38 Special mid-afternoon, after a jury of all white men was impaneled.

Tuesday: Mrs. Dahmer Testifies; Shattering Glass and Acrid, Choking Smoke

The first witness for the prosecution was Mrs. Vernon Dahmer.  I will never forget her testimony as long as I live.  She told of the sound of glass shattering in the den at about 2 o’clock in the morning, the thud of something hitting the floor, and then the bright blast against the darkness as the gasoline exploded again and again in the front rooms.  The fire burned the utility lines.  There was no electricity; no phone.  Just the roar of the fire … the acrid odor of the choking smoke … the sound of shots being fired … the three children.

She said her husband came into the bedroom and knocked the window out with the butt of his shotgun and helped her and the children out.  They all ran to the barn, “to get away from the light of the fire,” she said in a voice tense with emotion as she relived the details of the night the Ku Klux Klan burned her home and killed her husband.

Mrs. Dahmer testified for several hours.  She told how the family eventually made it to the home of Vernon Dahmer’s sister down the road.  His sister drove them to Forrest General Hospital.  Vernon Dahmer’s wounds did not appear to be life threatening.  However, what no one could see was the damage the hot toxic smoke had done to his lungs.  He died that afternoon.

Throughout it all, Cecil Sessums, the “Little Preacher,” stared at Mrs. Dahmer with indifference … chewing gum.  He knew the odds were good that an all-white male jury would not likely convict a white man for killing a black man; not in south Mississippi.

After Mrs. Dahmer’s dramatic testimony, the court was adjourned for the day.  The jury was ordered locked up for the night for their own protection.

Wednesday: Bullet-riddled Car; Revolver with Melted Plastic Grips

On Wednesday, an FBI agent testified about a bullet-riddled car found the morning after the firebombing “several miles from the Dahmer place” with both front tires flat.  The car was traced by the FBI to one of the Klansmen indicted for Dahmer’s murder.  Apparently Dahmer had disabled the car when he was returning fire with his shotgun through the picture window.

Other FBI agents testified about plastic jugs, some with small amounts of liquid in them … liquid that smelled like gasoline.  They told of finding a revolver with melted plastic grips, about a Halloween mask found out by the road and expended shotgun shells scattered all about … including in the smoldering ruins where the front of house once stood.

Pathologists took the stand to state in their expert opinion that Dahmer had died as a result of damage to his lungs sustained while he returned gunfire in a room filled with superheated toxic smoke. But no one had seen the faces of any of the raiders, no one except the other raiders.

Thursday: Billy Roy the Rat Says Sessum Threw Five Jugs of Gasoline

The surprising development in the case came Thursday when Billy Roy Pitts, a 24-year-old member of the raiding party, testified as a witness for the prosecution in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty, which was automatic in a murder case at that time in Mississippi.  The surprise was that he had not been shot by a sniper.

Pitts had been in federal custody before the trial, his whereabouts a closely guarded secret.  He was escorted to the court house that morning under heavy guard.  Throughout his testimony, all doors to the courtroom were blocked by well-armed deputies.

Pitts identified the eight members of the raiding party assigned to the firebomb the Dahmer home, while five others were assigned to burn down Dahmer’s store.  He told about the careful planning, and said that the raid had been ordered by Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.  As to the participation of Cecil Sessum, Pitts testified that he saw Sessum throw five jugs of gasoline through the picture window in the front of Dahmer’s house.

Friday: The Defense Rests; the All-White Male Jury Renders the Verdict

The next day, Friday, the defense attorneys tried to discredit Pitts by introducing witnesses who said that Pitts had been bragging that the FBI would give him anything we wanted to squeal.  They also tried to create doubt about whether Sessum could have participated in such a raid by having friends and family, including his mother, testify about what a fine, Christian man he was.

By the end of the day Friday, the cases had been made by both the prosecution and the defense.  At about 5 o’clock, the all-white male jury left the courtroom to decide the fate of a white man accused of killing a black man because he was registering black voters at his country store.

Two hours later the jury returned.  “We the jury find the defendant guilty as charged.”  Sessum chewed gum as the judge sentenced him to Parchman Penitentiary for the rest of his natural life.

The reporters scattered to find the nearest pay phone.  I watched the stunned crowd for awhile, most of whom just sat there in silence, then took the city bus back to campus.  Although I had been shaken by the week’s testimony, I really believed that something good would come from the sacrifice Vernon Dahmer and his family made just so black folk could vote.

It was Friday, March 15, 1968.  Two weeks later, in the early evening of April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, a rifle shot rang out ....

Privilege of Leading; Responsibility of Voting - The Wake County School Board

The story of Vernon Dahmer is a tribute during Black History Month to those who have sacrificed their lives for the constitutional rights of every citizen of the United States, especially the right to vote.  The story of Vernon Dahmer is also a means of reminding all who seek the privileged of leading that in a Democracy you must first accept the responsibility of voting … and turning out the vote of like-minded citizens.

Case in point is the ongoing controversy here in Wake County over the election of a conservative majority to the Wake County School Board in 2009 … a majority that seeks to end busing for purposes of socio-economic diversity in favor of returning to neighborhood schools.

On October 6, 2009, only 11.4% of Wake County’s voters participated in the municipal and county school board elections; that's 55,121 votes out of 483,526 registered voters.  When all was said and done (a runoff election was necessary), a new Wake County School Board majority was elected, a conservative majority.

Since the 1970s, many in Wake County have prided themselves in the school system’s national reputation for its commitment to socio-economic diversity.  However, over time, concerns by parents about the busing policy and the increasingly disruptive mass reassignments of children each year appeared by many to fall on the deaf ears of school board members.  That seemingly dismissive attitude became the catalyst for an uprising of angry parents and conservative education activists that led to the October 6, 2009 election of a conservative majority.

Since that day, all manner of angst has been expressed by those who are opposed to the conservative policies of the new school board.  From NAACP marches and protests leading to arrests, threats of a loss of accreditation, a letter to the editor of the Washington Post written by the U.S. Secretary of Education, threats of litigation and US Department of Justice intervention … all in the effort to continue to lead the school policies of Wake County.

Well folks, with the privilege of leading comes the responsibility of voting.  Where were the angry proponents of diversity on Election Day?  Are they setting a good example for our children by demanding the right to lead without exercising the right to vote?  Keep that up and you will make students think they can get a globally competitive education without academic rigor.

Where were you on Election Day?

  • Newly elected “neighborhood schools” advocate Chris Malone won his race with 3,931 votes out of 66,771 registered in District 1.  That’s 5.9% choosing Malone.
  • Newly elected “neighborhood schools” advocate John Tedesco won his runoff election with 6,673 votes out of 70,950 registered in District 2.  That’s 9.4% choosing Tedesco.
  • Newly elected “neighborhood schools” advocate Deborah Prickett won her race with 6,630 votes out of 80,298 registered in District 7.  That’s 8.3% choosing Prickett.
  • Newly elected “neighborhood schools” advocate Debra Goldman won her race with 4,450 votes out of 49,712 registered in District 9.  That’s 9% choosing Goldman.

With only about 7.5% of the registered voters choosing the four Wake County Board of Education members on October 6, 2009, that leaves 92.5% of the remaining registered voters available to the diversity crowd to persuade and turn out to vote.

I wonder what Vernon Dahmer would think about those who want the privilege of leading the Wake County School System without exercising the responsibility of voting?

- END -

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