Vernon Dahmer would want you to vote on Nov. 6 and in every election day for the rest of your life. He would want you to teach your children to vote. He would want you to urge your friends, neighbors and co-workers to vote.
So would Rev. George Lee, Lamar Smith, Herbert Lee, Medgar Evers and Jimmy Lee Jackson.
They all died so you would have the right.
Dahmer, a married father of eight who served as an NAACP president, achieved success as a businessman in Hattiesburg, Miss. in the 1950s and 1960s. He was committed to helping other African Americans to achieve the same success he had, according to people who knew him. He knew the best way to level the playing field between the races was the ballot box.
“He would drive people to the county courthouse to register to vote and he would pay the poll tax for those who couldn’t afford it,” said civil rights activist Lawrence Guyot of Northwest Washington, a native Mississippian who knew Dahmer. “He wanted to make sure nothing stood in the way of people voting. He used to drive people to NAACP meetings in Jackson.”
Though Blacks were the majority in Mississippi, they had little or no political or economic clout in the mid 1960s; most worked on farms or as laborers. Racist Whites who had worked hard to overturn the advances made during Reconstruction worked hard to make sure that anybody, like Dahmer, or anything, like voting, that might interfere with their power was extinguished.
Dahmer and his wife Ellie were sleeping in their bed one night when an explosion rocked their house and nearby store. Dahmer grabbed a shotgun and escorted his family to safety, inhaling smoke as he traded gunfire with the cowards who had attacked his family.
When it was over, Dahmer’s family was alive. His lungs had been badly singed, though, and he had been badly burned. As he lay dying in the hospital, with family at his side, he expressed disdain for those who would not take advantage of the right for which he was about to die.
“I’ve been active in trying to get people to register to vote,” he said. “People who don’t vote are deadbeats on the state.”
Two things became obvious as a result of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. One was that Blacks would not be denied the right to vote. The other was that they were willing to face bloodshed and even death to gain that right.
It was a cool Sunday afternoon in Selma, Ala., when 600 people converged on the city’s historic Brown Memorial Chapel to begin a peaceful protest against voter intimidation and violence. Many of the men and women still wore their church clothes. The plan was to walk through Selma, cross over the Alabama River via the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then walk at least part of the 50-plus miles to the capital at Montgomery. Organizers were not sure they would make it the entire way, but they hoped to at least symbolically present their case to then-Governor George Wallace, a devout segregationist who later embraced Blacks.
The march was led by two local men—John Lewis, president of the state’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Rev. Hosea Williams, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference volunteer. As the peaceful protesters crossed the bridge, they were met by a phalanx of police officers, some dressed in riot gear, some with their batons pulled. Though not a marcher raised a hand, the officers unleashed a violent, state-sponsored attack.
Hundreds of marchers were injured and more than 50 of the protesters required hospital treatment. Lewis, who was later elected to Congress and has spent decades representing the state of Georgia, was savagely beaten.
“I remember how vivid the sounds were as the troopers rushed toward us—the clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves hitting the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, “Get ‘em! Get the niggers!” Lewis wrote in his book, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.
“The first of the troopers came over me…Without a word, he swing his club against the left side of my head. I didn’t feel any pain, just the thud of the blow, and my legs giving way. I raised my arm—a reflex motion—as I curled up in the ‘prayer for protection’ position. And then the same trooper hit me again. And everything started to spin.”
John Lewis wants you to vote, too.
Black men first achieved the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, which was ratified in February 1870. African-American women didn’t get the vote until ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. In the first few years after the Civil War, Black men converged on polls in legions, electing African Americans to local, state and federal offices. After a few years, however, Southern Democrats, angry that the people who had once worked as slaves in their fields had become empowered, began a concerted effort to turn back the successes of Reconstruction by initiating impediments such as poll taxes and literacy tests. County registrars interfered with voter registration. Racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan conducted raids, cross burnings and lynchings. By 1900, the number of African American voters had dropped exponentially and the number would continue to drop into the 20th century, Guyot said.
John Doar, who worked as an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in the 1960s, said often Blacks were so intimidated that no violence was necessary.
“The biggest problem was with the registrars, who would not let them vote,” said Doar, 91. “They would disallow very qualified Blacks to register, even those who could explain the Constitution, as they required people to do. And they would allow any White person who was breathing to register. It was a travesty.”
Bob Moses, 77, a native New Yorker who spent seven years in Mississippi registering voters with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other organizations, said volunteers coached Blacks about the Constitution and escorted them to courthouses to take the tests. Several of the people from Mississippi who helped organizers were killed, like Herbert Lee. Moses said he was beaten and faced death several times.
“You have to understand that voting was the biggest threat,” Guyot said. “It gave Blacks the mechanism to change things, to have a say in who was making laws and therefore which laws were passed. That was not what people who wanted to control Blacks wanted. They used everything they could. They usually controlled law enforcement. The White politicians were involved. Most of the White business owners, too, because if African Americans were able to demand their rights, they would have had to pay fair wages. It was a whole conspiracy.”
Bloody Sunday, as horrible as it was, by all accounts was the event that pulled so heavily on the nation’s consciousness that it forced change.
Though by 1965, Americans had been fed a steady diet, via the Black press and other media, of the atrocities that were being visited on Blacks in the South, the televised reports of Lewis and others being beaten sickened people to the point that demands for action accelerated.
Prompted by the images and continued complaints about voter intimidation, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a southerner, asked Congress to pass a law to “make it impossible to thwart the 15th Amendement,” historical accounts show. “We cannot have government for all the people until we first make certain it is government of and by all the people,” Johnson said.
With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the federal government was further empowered to hammer away at impediments to Black voting by going as far as supervising voter registration. The act has been extended several times.
Though the act did not stop the violence, for awhile it accelerated with the murders of activists like Dahmer, things did eventually improve.
But some activists think that recent efforts to suppress voters by requiring ID, closing polling locations in Black jurisdictions and trying to discourage African Americans and Latinos from going to the polls by making false claims on billboards and robocalls are signs that the nation is regressing.
Guyot, who worked with the Congress of Racial Equality and was one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged racist policies Mississippi Democrats, said that’s why it is more imperative than ever to vote.
“The right to vote was something that we were able to achieve on the backs of a lot of good people,” he said. “That we would be in 2012 and anybody would not exercise the right is just a shame. The only way we will maintain what so many have fought for is to make sure our voices are heard and the best way to do that is by voting.”