Reflecting on the death of Vernon Dahmer, at the hands of the Klan 57 years ago, led to this interview.
Dahmer’s home in Hattiesburg was fire-bombed. Numerous sources report that he held the Klan off with a rifle as his wife and children escaped through the back.
He had been a successful businessman, NAACP president, and voting rights activist.
“In 1992, Dahmer’s widow, Ellie, was elected election commissioner of District 2, Forrest County. For more than a decade, she served in this position, supported by both black and white residents, in the same district where her husband was killed for his voting rights,” per Southern Poverty Law Center.
Once finding the NAACP in Hattiesburg on the internet – the Forrest County Branch, it was a breeze finding Clarence E. Magee – he is their branch president.
Initially I spoke to his wife, Carrie, an inspiration who quickly let me know that she was ninety-four. In short order, she was quoting from Ephesians 6 and 1st Timothy. Then my dam burst when she said, “The Lord loves us and I love the Lord and I love you too.”
Magee agreed to the request for an interview with The Mississippi Link. When I inquired as to where we could meet, assuming it would be at the NAACP meeting place or his church, he said ‘no,’ you may come to my home. We visited for two hours in his den filled with warmth; the walls and bookcases seemingly filled with awards and plaques highlighting his distinguished life of service, and his wife Carrie’s significant contributions to the community, as membership chair of the Forrest County Branch, and so much more.
Magee was born in Marion County, Columbia, on May 14, 1932, to Glossie R. Magee and Orabell Leggett Magee, a sharecropper’s son and the oldest of ten siblings. He farmed about forty acres of corn, cotton, sweet potatoes and sugar cane. Then there were the cows, hogs, goats and chickens.
“We grew everything; we never went hungry, he says. His Father made it to the sixth grade and his mother kept house and could often be found in the field well past sunset. In the winter months his family would often get to stay in the master’s home when it had been vacated by him in favor of another home closer to the school complex where he also presided. “At the master’s house we could hear the wind outside, but at our house we could feel it, and we could see the hogs and goats through knotholes in our floor.”
Much emphasis was placed on his father as a “trainer,” a deeply loving man who found practical ways in everyday activities and tasks to train his children, pouring everything he had into their education and advancement.
Magee graduated from Alcorn Agricultural & Mechanical College in 1954, majoring in biology. Alcorn is the oldest public historically black land-grant institution in the United States. Thirty days after arriving at Alcorn his mother died in childbirth. One month into his second semester his father went into a diabetic coma but survived and set about living a sugar-free life and went on to live to age eighty-four with the diabetes in remission. He was classmates with Myrlie Evers, and after graduation he ended up getting a lift back home to Columbia with Medgar Evers. He entered the Army soon after and over the next two years spent 11 months and 14 days in Germany.
He and Carrie married during a furlough. She became a teacher, and with the help of his father and money saved while in service, he and Carrie purchased a home in Hattiesburg. He knew about money by then – on the farm he would earn one penny per pound of cotton and quickly learned to pick two hundred pounds per day – two dollars of his very own money. He knew that education was critical and began teaching as well, yet knowing intuitively that they could be out of work at any time just by the whim of the school superintendent. In time, he opted for a job with the Department of Agriculture, and they left Hattiesburg for Mobile, Alabama, where they raised their two daughters, and stayed for twenty-one years before returning to Hattiesburg.
When asked about discrimination and oppression, he indicated that his first awareness of race was around age eight or nine. He reported not really understanding poverty until the arrival of television. He denied experiencing any direct threats to his life but acknowledged ugly telephone calls and sometimes being followed in his car, and having chemicals sprayed on his front lawn in the form of a cross.
He’s been an NAACP member since 1956, 67 years and was the president of the Forrest County Branch from 1970-1974, and has been president again since 2001. He indicates, “Nobody else seems to want it.” He believes it is the largest branch in the state. When you go to the Mississippi NAACP website – http://naacpms.org, the first words you see are When We Fight We Win. Beyond his focused, kind and generous demeanor, Magee has been and continues to be a fighter for equality and justice – a man of significance.
Magee’s Oral History is recorded in The Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The interview was conducted by Dr. Emilye Crosby at University of Southern Mississippi, December 01, 2015, and can be seen at https://www.loc.gov/item/2016655404/.
How often do we get to be in the presence of someone whose life story is archived in The Library of Congress?
When discussing freedom, he shared, “We use the word freedom sort of loosely; did we know what it meant then? Freedom from being harassed? We were terrorized – we lived like that all our lives. Freedom is not free. Freedom incurs immense responsibility. Too many people have a false notion of freedom. We live in a society today where everyone is comfortable. Most people get what they want, or someone will give them what they need. Where is the incentive to do better? Yet we are free.”
When asked to share what he would like people to know about The Civil Rights Movement, he said, “The courage. The legacy of courage that we must keep on keeping on in spite of the odds. Don’t let opportunity pass you by. We have a long legacy of investing in what we call freedom. If they don’t keep the investment going, then what will our future generations have to inspire the?”
Acknowledging the life and life’s work of Magee is a privilege, and not difficult in the least. Nor should it be for us to follow his example – digging deeper, investing time and energy – because as we are sadly reminded each day, freedom isn’t free, and it is also fragile.