1998 NCC News Archives

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NCC Officials Relieved by Verdict in Mississippi Murder Case
Recall NCC's Role in Holding 1995 Public Hearing About 1966 Klan Killing

NEW YORK, August 26, 1998 ---- Three years after the National Council of Churches (NCC) held a public hearing about the case and nearly 33 years after the crime, a Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard was convicted on August 21 for ordering the murder of civil rights supporter Vernon Dahmer, Sr. in 1966.

"We are greatly relieved that the killer of Vernon Dahmer, Sr. has finally been convicted," said the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, NCC General Secretary. "We hope this development will bring a measure of peace to the Dahmer family, who have been so steadfast in the search for justice. We were proud to stand by them and were inspired by their faith and by the courageous example of Mr. Dahmer himself, who gave his life protecting the civil rights of all members of his community."

Vernon Dahmer Sr. was killed in a January 10, 1966 firebombing of his house, the day after he announced that Black citizens could pay their poll taxes, the $2 fee that was required to register to vote, at his store. Mr. Dahmer was a storekeeper, farmer and local official with the N.A.A.C.P.

Mr. Bowers had planned Mr. Dahmer's death, sending a group of Klansmen to firebomb the Dahmer farmhouse. Although brought to trial for murder in the 1960s, two all-white juries deadlocked and Mr. Bowers was not convicted. Mr. Bowers is now 73 years old.

Even while he was burning, Mr. Dahmer defended his wife and family. He kept firing his shotgun at the Klansmen in his yard, giving his wife and children time to escape through the back of the house. Since that day, Mr. Dahmer's widow and children have never given up on their struggle to obtain justice.

"The trial and conviction of Sam Bowers is a testament to the longevity and the assiduous nature of seeking justice," said the Rev. Dr. Robert Polk, former NCC Deputy General Secretary. "In 1995, under my tenure, the NCC's Racial Justice Working Group convened a hearing on the Dahmer case. Over three years have passed, but now we learn that in an unprecedented decision, the senior most Klansman of Mississippi was finally brought to justice."

On July 31, 1995, the NCC held a public hearing in Hattiesburg, Miss. to provide an opportunity for Dahmer family members to air their appeal for new indictments in the case. The hearing also drew the three candidates running for district attorney in Hattiesburg at that time. The candidates spoke about the case and what they would do about it once elected.

Dahmer family members also spoke at the NCC's General Board meeting in November 1995.

Speaking at the July hearing on behalf of the NCC's Racial Justice Working Group, the late Rev. Mac Charles Jones said, "If we are to have a future together as a nation, it is really in the best interests of everyone that justice is done (in this case)." He also called on the NCC "to adopt this case as our own."

Two sons, Vernon, Jr. and Dennis, spoke at the hearing about the family's exhaustive efforts to gain re-prosecution after mistrials in four previous trials. Even though the case had been reopened in 1991, the family continued to encounter formidable obstacles. Although the State of Mississippi made funds available for securing a special prosecutor, the district attorney was sluggish in hiring one. The family had to struggle to obtain 40,000 crucial pages of F.B.I. records, which they finally accomplished with the help of U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson from Mississippi. Worst of all, some evidence and transcripts from past trials had disappeared.

Finally, the Dahmer family turned to the community for help, who formed an organization called "Citizens for Justice." The Rev. Kenneth Fairley, who headed the community group, spoke at the 1995 hearing. "A healing cannot take place unless you deal with your past," he said. "A scab can grow over the wound, but if it is infected, it will kill you. Our community is being killed because we are still infected by this. Whoever is in the DA's office, we are not going away until justice rolls down."

Three years later, Mr. Bowers was sentenced to life in prison by a racially diverse jury as Dahmer family members wept and thanked God. Dennis Dahmer's words from 1995 echo feelings the family expressed on the day of the verdict. "Frankly, this should have been taken care of years ago. But I would rather see justice delayed than denied."

Now that the verdict has been handed down, Dr. Polk reflected, "This is a clarion call to the faith community that traditionally professes justice. Our ability to lift up issues to the nation is but the beginning. We must also have a commitment to endure through the many years of tedious work. The Dahmers are witnesses to that commitment. Their struggle for their family, for those of us who are African American, for all people of faith, sought and found justice after nearly 33 years."


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