Dorie Ladner’s example

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SNCC veteran Dorie Ladner at the convening called “Power of Protest: Lessons of Vietnam” in Washington, DC. on May 1, 2015. (Photo: Deborah Menkart)

By Marian Wright Edelman

Jackson Advocate Guest Writer

I have always had fire, and always been ready to engage in something. And it’s something that burns, you turn on a flame that burns for people who are being mistreated. I don’t care who they are. I don’t want any downtrodden person or persons to be mistreated around the globe.” –Dorie Ladner

When Dorie Ladner visited a Georgetown University history class ten years ago to talk about her experiences as a young civil rights activist in Mississippi, at the end of the lecture one student asked her how the Civil Rights Movement ended. Her answer: “It hasn’t.” 

Dorie Ladner, who was a fellow Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member, a founder of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an organizer of Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer, and an antiwar and antipoverty activist, held a fiery determination to fight injustice and inequality her entire life. When she passed away March 11 she left behind a long legacy of courageous stands for freedom and justice, often taken side-by-side with her beloved sister, Dr. Joyce Ladner. One of the most important pieces of her legacy for children and young people is her example that you are never too young to start making a difference.

The sisters grew up in the small Black community of Palmer’s Crossing, Mississippi, just outside Hattiesburg, where their mother made sure to instill the message that they and their siblings were as good as anyone else. Dorie often recounted a story that took place when she was 12: a white grocery store clerk groped her buttocks as she was reading a magazine, and she immediately turned and beat him with the bag of donuts she was holding. When she told her mother what happened, she remembered, her mother advised her: “You should have killed him. Don’t ever let any white man touch you wrong.” This sense of self-worth and steely courage would be invaluable assets as Dorie started becoming involved in Mississippi’s dangerous Civil Rights Movement battles just a few years later.

As she explained in an oral history interview: “When I was 14, a number of things happened that brought me into the freedom movement. There was the murder of Emmett Till on August 28, 1955. He was just one year older than I was. I was enraged, but I did not know what to do with that anger . . . In the newspapers about the trial I read references to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. I asked my social studies teacher Mr. Clark what they were about and did not get a satisfactory answer, so I got a copy of the U.S. Constitution. When I read those amendments I felt empowered. My sister Joyce and I had an opportunity to do something with our anger when Mrs. Beard took us to NAACP state meetings in Jackson, Mississippi, where we met Roy Wilkins, Medgar Evers, and others. I was impressed by Medgar Evers, who was outgoing and showed great warmth toward us. He told us about our rights to better schools and pointed out that our parents were paying taxes for our education.”

Mrs. Beard, one of the mentors she mentioned, was Eileen Dahmer Beard – a close friend of her mother’s who attended their church, and the sister of local NAACP president Vernon Dahmer. Vernon Dahmer soon became a key mentor too as he helped Dorie and Joyce organize a Hattiesburg NAACP Youth Council. When Dorie wanted to learn more about her own rights, she initially had an experience with her teacher that too many of our children still have in school today: she was confronted with an inability, or a deliberate unwillingness, to share the whole truth. But Dorie did not stop there. She educated herself, and she was blessed to be surrounded by other caring adults who took her seriously and helped her realize that even as a young Black teenage girl, she could take action. Once she started, she never stopped, and her activism and organizing at every key step of the Civil Rights Movement helped change history.

As Women’s History Month continues, many schools are still making a special effort to teach students about women leaders. I hope some of them are learning about Dorie Ladner today – and I hope adults are determined to do their part to educate and empower the children and young people in their families and communities so they know the truth about history, understand their rights today, and realize they too can take action. In a more recent interview with the Washington Post, Dorie Ladner shared a message for today’s young activists that reiterated what she told the Georgetown student: the war is not over. Her example should keep inspiring the young people who are picking up her battle now and carrying on.

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Dorie Ladner’s example

By Jackson Advocate News Service
April 1, 2024