Dorie Ladner, Unheralded Civil Rights Heroine, Dies at 81

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Dorie Ladner, Unheralded Civil Rights Heroine, Dies at 81


Dorie Ann Ladner, a largely unsung hero on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the 1960s South, a crusade that led the nation to abolish some of the last vestiges of legal segregation, died Monday in Washington. She was 81.

She died in a hospital from complications of Covid-19, bronchial obstruction and colitis, said her younger sister and fellow civil rights activist Joyce Ladner, who called her a lifelong defender of the “inferior and dispossessed.”

Ms. Ladner was born and raised in racially segregated Mississippi. Her mother taught her not to accept nonsense. As a teenager, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; dropped out of college three times to organize voter registration campaigns and promote integration; occasionally carrying a weapon, as some of her prominent colleagues have been shot or blown up; became friends with the movement’s most famous figures; and participated in virtually every major civil rights march of the decade.

“The movement was something I wanted to do,” she told The Southern Quarterly in 2014. “She pulled on me, pulled on me, so I followed my conscience.”

“The line between blacks and whites has been drawn in the sand,” she said in an interview for the PBS documentary series “American Experience” that same year. “And would I stay on the other side of the line forever? No. I decided to cross that line. I jumped over that line and started fighting.”

Dorie Ann Ladner was born on June 28, 1942 in Hattiesburg, Miss. Her ancestors included Native Americans and a white landowner five generations earlier, but she identified as Black. Her father, Eunice Ladner, was a dry cleaner whose marriage to her mother, Annie (Woullard) Ladner, ended in divorce when she was a toddler. Her mother, who ran the house, later married William Perryman, a mechanic.

Dory participated in her first spontaneous protest when she was 12 years old: When a white grocer in her Palmers Crossing neighborhood touched her buttocks inappropriately, she hit him with a bag of donuts.

“Mother started teaching us not to let anyone insult us or mistreat us, and to always look white people in the eye when you talk to them,” Ms. Ladner recalled in the Southern Quarterly interview. “’Never look down, never look back.’”

Dorie and Joyce joined the NAACP in high school, and after graduating in the same class, Dorie enrolled at what was then Jackson State College in Jackson, Miss., despite their age difference – with Joyce as salutatorian and Dorie as valedictorian.

She was expelled after attending a prayer vigil for students who staged a civil rights protest at Tougaloo College, which like Jackson is a historically black institution. The students were arrested after they staged a sit-in outside the all-white public library in Jackson.

She later moved to Tougaloo, dropped out three times to work as a civil rights organizer, but ultimately graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. After moving to Washington in 1974, she received a master’s degree from Howard University’s School of Social Work and was a social worker in the emergency room at the District of Columbia General Hospital, which closed in 2001.

While at Tougaloo, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, placing herself at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Triggered by the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a black teenager barely a year older than she was at the time, she was also shaken by the murders of fellow civil rights activists, including Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer.

“The murder of Emmett Till left a strong impression on me,” she later said. “I said, ‘If they did it to him, they’ll do it to me.'”

While on break from college, Ms. Ladner was serenaded by Bob Dylan in the New York apartment where she helped plan the 1963 March on Washington. He is said to have been enthusiastic about her and alluded to her in his song “Outlaw Blues”: “I got a woman in Jackson / I ain’t gonna say her name / She’s a brown-skin woman, but I / Love. “she anyway.

Ms. Ladner also founded the Council of Federated Organizations, a network of civil rights groups; was arrested in Jackson for attempting to take over a Woolworth lunch counter; narrowly escaped a bomb mistakenly planted near her Natchez location while leading an SNCC project; organized voter registration campaigns, including the Freedom Summer campaign in 1964, and worked with Fannie Lou Hamer, who was unceremoniously evicted from her plantation home for registering; and was an organizer of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the state’s all-white Democratic delegates to the party’s national convention in 1964.

In 1971 she married Hailu Churnet; Their marriage ended in divorce. In addition to her sister Joyce, a sociology professor who served as interim president of Howard University from 1994 to 1995, she is survived by her daughter Yodit Churnet; another sister, Billie Collins; a brother, Harvey Garrett; two stepsisters, Willa Perryman Tate and Hazel Perryman Mimbs; two stepbrothers, Freddie and Archie Perryman; and a grandson. Another of her stepbrothers, Tommy Perryman, predeceased her.

Mr. Ladner often marveled that she was still a teenager when she persuaded poor, vulnerable black people to risk their lives for principles that she passionately proclaimed and felt she had to defend.

“I’ve thought about it quite a bit,” she said in a 2008 interview with The HistoryMakers Digital Archive: “Would I follow a 19-year-old student myself?”

“But we, we had a message, and their ancestors had moved on, and we were the messengers who gave them the message that had been given to them and that they had been waiting for,” she added. “Spiritually that’s the only way I can describe it. Because we had nothing but ourselves and we lived in their homes and in the community and ate what they ate.”

“We were poor ourselves,” Ms. Ladner said. “We had nothing. We didn’t have big, shiny cars and we only had one message, and the message was one of liberation for all of us.”



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2024-03-16 13:49:46

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