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A GHOST OUT OF MISSISSIPPI

The news out of Hattiesburg, Miss., where a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan was convicted Friday for the 1966 firebomb murder of a black storekeeper, comes to me like a ghost from a very ugly past.

That ghost reminds me of many things, not the least being that terrorism is not a new, or an Islamic, or a Northern Ireland phenomenon. The testimony of Ellie Dahmer, the widow of Vernon F. Dahmer Sr., makes it clear that nothing could exceed the terror she and her children felt in the 2 a.m. darkness of Jan. 10, 1966, when two carloads of Klansmen surrounded her home carrying shotguns and 12 one-gallon jugs of gasoline.

As Klansmen set the home afire, Vernon kept firing his shotgun to give his family a chance to flee the flames. He was burned so badly that he died 12 hours later.

But that was not the height of Dahmer's bravery. He had dared to serve as an NAACP official when the civil-rights group was despised by white Mississippians. He had allowed blacks to use his store to pay their $2 poll tax and register to vote in a Mississippi where the Klan and most of the white power structure were determined that no black people would exercise political power.

Dahmer knew the risks. He knew another brave black man, Gus Courts of Belzoni, Miss., who had been shot for trying to register to vote. Courts had explained his "recklessness" to me by saying, "I just wanted to be able to say that I voted once before I died."

Mississippi tried Klan leader Sam H. Bowers four times for masterminding Dahmer's murder, but four times all-white juries deadlocked. This time, as a ghostly symbol of progress, the state assembled a jury of six African-Americans, five whites and one Asian to decide the guilt or innocence of Bowers, now 73.

The state faced the burden of tying Bowers to what I recall as a very chilling, frightening, angering crime, since Bowers apparently was not among the Klansmen who actually set the death flames. But Bowers carried the burden of a bad reputation, because he spent six years in prison for helping to plan the 1966 murders and bulldozer burials of civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Miss.

The jury's guilty verdict obviously is important to the Dahmer family, and also to Mississippi's modern reputation. But Vernon Dahmer's legacy is not in that courtroom. It is in the fact that blacks now hold many elective offices in Mississippi, and some 8,000 across the nation. So his belief in the power of the ballot has been justified.

Still, there is painful irony in the fact that many injustices still exist in Mississippi and across America, because so many African-Americans don't exercise the right to vote that Dahmer, Courts, Medgar Evers and others won for them at such great cost.

These men may writhe in heaven knowing that Republicans whose views and policies are inimical to almost everything black Americans aspire to now control the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, primarily because the "new South" that once was solidly Democratic is now electing Republicans. This may be part of a white backlash against the new electoral powers of blacks, but it also reflects a shameful indifference on the part of many thousands of blacks of voting age.

I greet that ghost out of Hattiesburg with somber memories, but also with great uncertainty as to whether to smile or weep again the way I did in 1966.

North America Syndicate

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