The name ‘Dahmer County’ has a nice ring to it …

I firmly believe that our country is going through a major makeover, and Mississippi has the opportunity to be at the forefront of those changes.

The May murder of George Floyd by a now-indicted police officer in Minneapolis has sparked a national discussion about civil rights, excessive force tactics utilized by police and the many symbols of the Confederate States of America that are on proud display in many states.

Those symbols are prominent in the Magnolia State, where the romanticized “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy is still rooted in the minds of many residents. Perhaps the most prominent symbol in Mississippi is the state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem. Significant momentum is building to change the flag, and we have been told that lawmakers are working to make a change either through the legislative process or a statewide referendum.

Locally, the Confederacy is memorialized through a 1910 statue that sits by the circuit court building in downtown Hattiesburg. The statue is dedicated to Confederate war dead and also to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was born in Tennessee. When Forrest County was established in 1908, legislators decided to pay tribute to the infamous general – who was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan – by naming the county for him.

This past weekend, there was a large protest in downtown Hattiesburg by groups wanting the statue removed, and it has become a point of contention between Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker and the Forrest County Board of Supervisors. Angry residents have called on Barker to remove the statue, which is owned by the county. Of course, Barker has no authority to do so, and he has gently encouraged supervisors to consider removing it. I applaud the mayor for his public stance, and I am shocked at the lack of leadership from the supervisors on this issue.

The supervisors met Monday, and they should have made a decision on the future of the statue then. Instead, they squabbled with one another and eventually punted the issue to the polling place. The fate of the statue will thus be decided by Forrest County voters on Nov. 3, the same day of the presidential election. The statue vote will add more fire to an already hot election year, and I believe supervisors have, in this matter, failed in their basic responsibility of making day-to-day decisions for the betterment of the county.

My feelings on this particular statue – and the numerous other historical markers like it that are scattered throughout the nation – are complex, mostly because I was a history major in college and have a particular interest in Civil War history. I find myself to be generally against the removal of these monuments, but I do believe interpretive plaques should be added to each of them. These plaques should provide context and adequately explain the true nature of the Confederacy and its rebellion against the other states.

They should also minimize the heroics attributed to figures like Forrest, who is known for slaughtering more than 300 black Union soldiers following the Battle of Fort Pillow in April 1864. The plaques should be objective in nature and authored by credible historians, not by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A plaque added to the Hattiesburg statue would have been a simple option for supervisors to consider, but they did not explore any alternatives beyond the removal of the statue.

Demonstrators have also asked supervisors to change the name of Forrest County, but that is a complex matter that would not be solved with an interpretive plaque. A name change would require significant action by the Mississippi Legislature, and I doubt lawmakers would consider it while also considering the various motions to change the state flag. However, a man can dream, and I think a name change is appropriate and necessary as we form a new and improved Mississippi that strives to be free of racism and has finally severed its ties to the Confederacy.

Personally, I think our county should be renamed in memory of Vernon Dahmer Sr., the civil rights leader and Forrest County NAACP chapter president who was murdered by the KKK in 1966. Supervisors recently honored Dahmer with a statue near the Confederate monument, so this idea should easily gain traction. By all accounts, Dahmer was a great man, and the county name would be a fitting way to memorialize someone who lost his life while helping his fellow citizens register to vote.

My idea may seem out of this world at this time, but it would be a great way to show the rest of the country that Mississippi is changing. For a moment, imagine the reaction of the world if we changed the name of our county, adopted a new state flag and added interpretive plaques to our Civil War monuments. Our state could be seen as a beacon of progress instead of as a laughingstock and as a place people should avoid.

A bright future is possible, but we have to stop imagining it and instead get to work. Leaders like Dahmer showed us how to make positive change happen, and we can follow in his footsteps to accomplish real and necessary change. Organize, write your legislators and local officials, peacefully assemble, petition … and we can move this state forward.

Mitchell’s ‘Race Against Time’ confronts the South’s difficult past

Mississippi-based investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell is a hero in my eyes, and I was happy to see his much-anticipated memoir, “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era,” hit bookshelves earlier this year.

The book – published by Simon & Schuster in February – is a lengthy and emotional walk through the author’s intense career as an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, and I’m proud to recommend it as one of my favorite books.

“Race Against Time” begins with Mitchell’s start as one of the Ledger’s court reporters. He is interested in civil rights-era killings, and his bravery – and determination to win justice – takes hold of his work. Mitchell tackles cold cases that haven’t seen the light of day in years, and he is richly rewarded with numerous convictions of Klansmen who previously escaped justice.

Mitchell’s work was highly dangerous. In the 1980s, when his journey for justice began, the Klan was still highly active in Mississippi – and they made their disdain for Mitchell and his reporting known. Still, he doggedly pursued justice in cases like the assassination of Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP.

Byron De La Beckwith shot Evers with an Enfield 1917 rifle in the early morning hours of June 12, 1963, as Evers was headed into his home. De La Beckwith was arrested for the murder and was tried for the crime – twice – in early 1964, but the juries deadlocked both times. He may have escaped justice forever had it not been for Mitchell’s determination.

The reporter helped unearth new evidence in the Evers murder, and he also put pressure on Mississippi authorities to retry De La Beckwith. He was successful, and De La Beckwith was convicted of murder in 1994.

Mitchell was also instrumental in securing justice for the family of Vernon Dahmer. Dahmer, who lived in the Kelly Settlement near Hattiesburg, was a local civil rights leader famous for his work to secure African Americans the right to vote. Dahmer was also a two-term president of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP.

On the night of Jan. 10, 1966, a group of Klansmen firebombed Dahmer’s home, resulting in his death while defending his family and securing them from harm. Fourteen men were indicted for the Dahmer murder, but only four of them were convicted while another entered a guilty plea. The person who ordered the killings – Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the Klan – was tried four times, and each trial ended in a mistrial.

Once again, Mitchell used his journalistic talents to apply pressure to authorities. He sought out new evidence, built networks of information, cultivated sources and coaxed stories out of them, and his work was rewarded with the state reopening the case on the 25th anniversary of the Dahmer murder. It took seven years, but Bowers was convicted in 1998.

The third story in the book is about Mitchell’s investigation of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He interviewed one of the primary suspects, Bobby Cherry, who had previously evaded justice, and he identified numerous holes in Cherry’s alibi. With this help, the Alabama attorney general was able to reopen the case and convict Cherry.

In its final chapters, the book recounts Mitchell’s extensive involvement in the reopening of the 1964 “Mississippi Burning” murders. Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were working with the Freedom Summer campaign to register African Americans to vote when they were brutally murdered by Klansmen in Neshoba County and then buried in an earthen dam.

Mitchell wrote about the “Mississippi Burning” case for six years and was able to locate new evidence and new witnesses. Through the process of elimination, he was also able to identify Mr. X, a key FBI informant, and make several other invaluable breaks in the case.

His investigation renewed calls for justice around the country, and the case was reopened in 2005. Edgar Ray Killen, a Klan organizer who directed the murders, was indicted on three counts of murder and convicted later that year.

Mitchell’s career has been full of success, and his memoir is a testament to that. It’s also a testament to the power of – and necessity of – investigative journalism. Mitchell is no longer employed by the Ledger, but he founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in 2018. The nonprofit news organization will build off of Mitchell’s past work and continue it.

“Race Against Time” is a great read worthy of your attention. The book features excellent writing and strong pacing, and it’ll leave you wondering how the Klan’s hatred took hold in the South and allowed for such heinous crimes. It’ll leave you unsettled, but it’ll also leave you with hope. It’ll show you that justice is still possible and that people – and attitudes – can change with time.

Remembering Revels

On Feb. 11 in the House Chamber of the Old Capitol in Jackson, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the state agency that operates the fantastic Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, celebrated the life of Hiram Rhodes Revels.

It was in that very room 150 years earlier that Revels, an African American born to free people of color in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1827, was elected by the Mississippi State Senate to serve as one of the state’s two senators in the United States Congress.

Revels was the first African American to serve in Congress, and, on the 150th anniversary of his election, there was a great deal of national interest given to his life. Eric Foner, author of “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution,” penned an op-ed largely about Revels for the Feb. 14 edition of The New York Times.

“Hiram Revels is worth remembering as both a pioneer of black political power and a refutation of racist stereotypes,” wrote Foner.

Revels, a barber by trade, grew up as an apprentice to his older brother, who owned a barbering shop in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Following the death of his brother, Revels took ownership of the shop until becoming an African Methodist Episcopal Church priest.

He spent many of his younger years ministering to African Americans across the Midwest, a dangerous role. Revels provided religious instruction to slaves, and, as he later recalled, was met “with a great deal of opposition.” He was briefly imprisoned in Missouri in 1854 for, in his words, “preaching the gospel to Negroes, though I was never subjected to violence.”

At the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Revels was a Methodist Episcopal Church minister in Baltimore, Maryland, where he also led a black high school. He helped the U.S. Army recruit two volunteer regiments of African Americans, and, two years later, he joined the Army as a chaplain for an African American regiment in Mississippi.

According to Foner, Revels “came to Union-occupied Mississippi … and threw himself into educating the former slaves.” At the war’s conclusion in 1865, Revels returned to preaching and briefly led churches in Leavenworth, Kansas, and New Orleans before receiving the call to permanently lead a church in Natchez.

He settled in Reconstruction-era Natchez with his wife and five daughters in 1866. In 1868, the state’s provisional governor, Adelbert Ames, appointed Revels as a Natchez alderman, and, one year later, he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi Senate.

While in the state legislature, Revels delivered the body’s opening prayer in January 1870, a prayer so powerful that Mississippi Congressman John R. Lynch later noted it “made Revels a United States Senator.”

Prior to 1913, state legislatures elected U.S. senators, and, in 1870, Mississippi’s two Senate seats had been vacant since the start of the Civil War. As Foner notes, “Mississippi’s lawmakers, who included almost three dozen African Americans, chose Ames for one vacant United States Senate term and Revels for the year that remained of another.”

During his time in the Senate, Revels supported racial equality, later writing that “I did all I could for the benefit of my needy and much imposed-upon people.” He fought for the reinstatement of black legislators from the Georgia General Assembly, and he persuaded the Secretary of War to hire black mechanics at the Baltimore Navy Yard. Revels also fought for integration in public schools and in the railroad system.

His Senate term expired in March 1871, and Revels returned to Mississippi, where he was appointed as the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, which is now Alcorn State University. He briefly served as Mississippi’s interim secretary of state in 1873 and continued as college president until 1882.

Following his retirement, Revels moved to Holly Springs, where he resumed preaching and served as editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper. He also taught at Rust College prior to his death on January 16, 1901, at the age of 73.

I agree with Foner that Revels had a life worth remembering, but I wonder how many people do. There are few mentions to Revels in our culture; indeed, there are not – to my knowledge – any significant public memorials to him. Looking at a Mississippi map, one that is covered with honorariums to Civil War figures, I do not see a municipality named Revels or a county called Revels County.

Where are the highways devoted to Revels? The schools? The statues?

As our state debates touchy subjects like the removal of Confederate monuments and the possible changing of our state flag, it may be time to look at honoring people like Revels, who committed their lives to racial equality and fought the hard fight when others could not or would not.

Revels deserves more respect than a tall tomb in his adopted hometown of Holly Springs, and, while we are taking a deep look into ourselves and the image our state projects to the nation and to the world, he is a figure we should remember.