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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Time again for StoryCorps. And today, we're remembering a man who fought for the right to vote in Mississippi and was murdered for it. His name is Vernon Dahmer, and he was a civil rights leader in the mid-1960s. At the time, people were still required to pay a poll tax in Mississippi when they registered to vote. Dahmer, who was a successful farmer and businessman, publicly offered to pay that tax for black Americans who couldn't afford it. When Dahmer's house was firebombed by the KKK, his wife and three of his children were inside. His widow, Ellie Dahmer, and their daughter, Bettie Dahmer, who was just 10 at the time, came to StoryCorps to remember that night.
ELLIE DAHMER: We didn't think anybody would bother the children, but we were wrong. They intended to get all of us January the 10, 1966. 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 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.
BETTIE DAHMER: We escaped to the barn to hide, and I can remember us sitting on the bales of hay. I had burns over a good portion of my body, and I was screaming and crying because I was in pain. 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.
DAHMER: You was in the room with your father. I was sitting between the two beds. And he yelled my name real loud, and then he was gone. He knew that he might get killed, and he was willing to take the risks, but it was not worth it to me. I miss him so much.
DAHMER: Daddy wasn't a man that wore a suit, he wore overalls. In daddy's world, everybody had a job to do. Black people couldn't vote, so I do understand why he did what he did. It meant a lot to him.
DAHMER: Some of the last words he said was, if you don't vote, you don't count. That's on his tombstone. 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.
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MARTIN: The voice of Ellie Dahmer remembering her husband Vernon Dahmer with their daughter Bettie at StoryCorps in Mississippi. More than 30 years later, the KKK leader who ordered Vernon's killing was convicted of his murder. Ellie went on to serve as an election commissioner in Hattiesburg. Their interview is part of the StoryCorps archive at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
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