The Family Origins of Vernon Dahmer, Civil Rights Activist

The article below, written by Wilmer Watts Backstrom and Yvonne Bivins, was originally published by Renegade South on December 6, 2009. I am re-posting it because of recent media attention given to Newt Knight as a result of the Senate candidacy of Chris McDaniel, a member of the Mississippi Tea Party.

Chris McDaniel lives in Ellisville, Jones County, Mississippi, a fact that probably made inevitable an invoking of the spirit of the Free State of Jones, and, specifically, the ghost of Newt Knight. Just this morning, a Politico article made the comparison, noting that


Here in the Mississippi Pine Belt, Jones County has been known as “The Free State of Jones” since the Civil War, when a hardheaded fellow named Newton Knight led a movement to oppose the Confederacy. His beef would resonate with tea partiers of today; Knight and his comrades felt they shouldn’t be conscripted as Rebel soldiers when plantations with more than 20 slaves could exempt one white male. They believed dirt farmers shouldn’t fight a rich man’s war.


Fair enough. But does this description of Newt Knight truly “resonate” with what Chris McDaniel represents?  Author Bill Nichols apparently thinks so:  “Jones Countians loathe the Washington establishment,” he tells us, before wrapping up his article by linking McDaniel and Newt Knight as self-appointed “patriots” seeking to save the Republic.

But wait a minute. This analogy is absurd—patently absurd. During the Civil War, Newt Knight led a band of men who fought FOR the federal government, and AGAINST the Confederacy. During the war, Newt crossed the color line and, for the rest of his life—in Jim Crow Mississippi—lived openly among his mixed-race descendants. In contrast, Chris McDaniel proudly stands before the Confederate flag and regularly denounces the federal government. And he certainly isn’t courting the vote of black Mississippians.

But there’s more. Just today, we were treated to news stories about one of  Chris McDaniel’s donors, lawyer Carl Ford. Ford, we learn, defended KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers for the murder of Civil Rights activist, Vernon Dahmer of Hattiesburg. He is also a member of the League of the South, a Neo-Confederate organization that was associated with the Ku Klux Klan in Laurel, Mississippi, during the 1960s.

Ah, the plot thickens! Chris McDaniel’s association with Carl Ford makes efforts to buddy him up with Newt Knight all the more absurd. Especially since the revered Civil Rights activist murdered by Klan leader Sam Bowers came from a family that had intermarried extensively with the mixed-race descendants of Newt Knight himself!

And, so, for those interested in the true associations of Newt Knight, I am republishing the essay on Vernon Dahmer, written several years ago Wilmer Watts Backstrom and Yvonne Bivins. 



Renegade South

Note from Renegade South: Vernon F. Dahmer, a well known Mississippi civil rights worker, was murdered in 1966 by white supremacists connected to the Ku Klux Klan. Before the night of January 10, 1966, when the Dahmer grocery store and home were firebombed, Vernon had been leading voter registration drives in his community. To facilitate that effort, he had recently placed a voter registration book in the grocery store he owned.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

Dahmer Grocery Store

Vernon Dahmer, Western Union Telegram

It took many years and five court trials to convict KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers in 1998 of having ordered the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Today, Dahmer is revered for his courageous work on behalf of black civil rights. In honor of his memory, both a street and memorial park in Hattiesburg bear his name.

In the essay that follows, Dahmer’s grandniece, Wilmer Watts Backstrom, and Yvonne Bivins, a member of his extended family of Smiths, Ainsworths, and…

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2 replies »

  1. Maybe the one place were one could make a case for Newt and at least some commonality with the ‘Tea Party’ (or at least some factions of the Tea Party) would be what happened to Newt AFTER the war.

    Washington wanted nothing to do with recognizing Southerners who had supported the Union….let alone pay them for their service. Yet Newt doggedly tried for decades it appears to get said. I don’t know but hard to believe he didn’t get frustrated!

    “Hey GOP…the 19th century called…they found your backbone and spine”
    (a thought I had recently)

    Washington also abandoned the south and this is why the ‘second era of slavery’ commenced e.g. Jim Crow Laws, etc. to a great extent.

    I think there’s a difference between ‘loathing Washington’ and the Washington status quo or graft, waste, etc. There’s a lot of Americans who are frankly ashamed of both major parties right now on the whole, but not every person in both parties.

    It makes me think of the HL Mencken quote:

    “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

    Randy Tate
    descendant of John Knight, Newt Knight’s older brother

    how about this for a paragraph:


    “Men must be totally blinded by passion not to perceive the sinister significance of this servile armament. It is to be expected that after having become familiarized with the license of camps and excitement of campaigning that these men will resume their former lives of rural simplicity and contended bondage? Will the hand that has acquired the usage of pistol and sabre quietly take up the shovel and the hoe again at the bidding of a master? This seems only an example of the general fatuity – a war instituted ostensibly in defense of negro slavery, against the only power on earth which has the will and ability to insure its protection – a war which must inevitable destroy the institution it professes to defend.”


    • Well said, Randy, and great to hear from you after a good while! You’re so right about the fed govt’s abandonment of southern Unionists after the war. In the midst of his frustration, Newt commented (around 1892-1893) that the ordinary farmers should have risen up and overthrown the slaveholders rather than fight their war for them–i.e, they should have defeated them by themselves. Unfortunately, mississippi’s tea partiers would empower the class that Newt loathed . . .



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