Home News Dorie Ladner, Unheralded Civil Rights Heroine, Dies at 81

Dorie Ladner, Unheralded Civil Rights Heroine, Dies at 81

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Dorie Ladner, Unheralded Civil Rights Heroine, Dies at 81

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

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

Born and raised in racially segregated Mississippi by a mother who taught her to take no guff, Ms. Ladner joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a teenager; left college three times to organize voter-registration campaigns and promote integration; packed a gun on occasion, as some of her prominent colleagues were shot or blown up; befriended the movement’s most celebrated 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. “It was pulling at me, pulling at me, so I followed my conscience.”

“The line was drawn in the sand for Blacks and for whites,” she said in an interview for the PBS documentary series “American Experience” the same year. “And was I going to 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, five generations earlier, a white landowner, 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 managed the home, later married William Perryman, a mechanic.

Dorie participated in her first spontaneous protest when she was 12: When a white grocery storekeeper in her neighborhood of Palmers Crossing touched her inappropriately on her buttocks, she smacked him with a bag of doughnuts.

“Mother started training us not to let anybody abuse 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 N.A.A.C.P. in high school, and after they graduated in the same class, despite their age difference — with Joyce as salutatorian and Dorie as valedictorian — Dorie enrolled at what was then Jackson State College in Jackson, Miss.

She was expelled after joining a prayer vigil for students who had staged a civil-rights protest at Tougaloo College, which, like Jackson, is a historically Black institution. The students had been arrested after organizing a sit-in at the all-white public library in Jackson.

She later transferred to Tougaloo, dropping out three times to work as a civil rights organizer but eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1973. 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 of District of Columbia General Hospital, which closed in 2001.

While at Tougaloo, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commitee, placing herself at the vanguard of the civil rights movement. Primed by the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was barely a year older than she was at the time, she was also shaken by the murders of civil rights movement colleagues including Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer.

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

During her hiatuses from college, Ms. Ladner was serenaded by Bob Dylan in the New York apartment where she helped to plan the 1963 March on Washington. He was said to have been smitten with her and to have 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 her just the same.

Ms. Ladner also founded the Council of Federated Organizations, a network of civil rights groups; was arrested in Jackson for trying to integrate a Woolworth lunch counter; barely escaped a bomb that had been mistakenly placed next door to where she was staying in Natchez while directing an SNCC project; organized voter registration drives, including the Freedom Summer campaign in 1964 and worked with Fannie Lou Hamer, who was summarily evicted from her plantation home for registering; and was an organizer of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white state 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, died before 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 believed they were obligated to defend.

“I pondered quite often,” she said in an interview with The HistoryMakers Digital Archive in 2008: “Would I, myself, follow a 19-year-old year old student?”

“But we, we had a message, and their ancestors had gone on, and we were the messengers who brought them the message that had been passed on that they were 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 lived 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 a message, and the message was one of liberation for all of us.”

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