Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Bivins told Dahmer she'd remove the flag; she said that to the custodian, not Dahmer. The story has been corrected to reflect that.
Claudia Bivins wanted her grandson to understand the sacrifices African-Americans made to get the right to vote.
So when she left home Tuesday to vote in Mississippi’s Senate runoff, she wore a Confederate flag draped around her shoulders and a red noose hanging from her neck.
The unconventional lesson left some people scratching their heads, but those who know Bivins said it made sense.
Carlos Wilson had an inkling of what she was up to when he saw her outside his polling station in Hattiesburg. The two know each other from their shared interests in political activism and social justice, said Wilson, a pastor at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church.
“Claudia is very outspoken, a very conscious woman … If there’s something that’s got to be said – that needs to be said – and if she’s around, she’s one of those people who will say it,” he said.
“I immediately knew what was going on, but I always like to hear her story so I asked what the deal was today.”
Bivins told CNN that her trip to the polls was a field trip with her 7-year-old grandson, who had completed a homework assignment the day before about why voting is important.
She brought the noose, she said, to symbolize the past lynching of her ancestors. The flag was to represent the heavy burden of racism that still exists on her shoulders today, she said.
“It still weighs me down,” Bivins said. “The flag represents racism, slavery and affliction.”
Bivins was part of the first integrated class in her high school, she said. One of the lessons she shared with her grandson Tuesday was that she wouldn’t have been allowed in the school he now attends when she was his age, she said.
After voting, Bivins took her grandson to a place she frequents: the grave of Vernon Dahmer, a civil rights activist killed by the Ku Klux Klan for organizing voter registration for African Americans.
In years’ past, Bivins said, she would often visit Dahmer’s grave on election days. This year, she and her grandson laid the Confederate flag over his grave and placed olive branches and peppermint on it.
She said the olive branches symbolizes the champion that Dahmer was and the peppermint represents healing.
“As I laid the rebel flag down across Vernon’s grave, I told my grandson what it represents – our hope that racism and hatred would die,” Bivins said. “That it would be killed at the root of our hearts, minds and souls.”
Bivins said her demonstration was inspired by this week’s runoff election, one that brought Mississippi’s history of racism and lynching into focus. On the ballot was Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who told one supporter that she’d be “on the front row,” if he “invited me to a public hanging.”
Her campaign team called the comment an “exaggerated expression of regard,” but the comment still cost her backing from big name donors like Walmart and Google. CNN also reported that Hyde-Smith once promoted a measure that praised a Confederate soldier’s effort to “defend his homeland” and had pushed a revisionist view of the Civil War.
CNN projected on Tuesday night that Hyde-Smith defeated her opponent, Mike Espy, in the runoff election.
Bivins told CNN she disagreed with President Donald Trump’s decision to campaign for Hyde-Smith. But Tuesday’s field trip was about connecting the past with the present, she said, by introducing him to a martyr who died fighting for their right to vote.
“It was about teaching my grandson a part of history that is normally hidden or ignored,” she said.
Some people may think Bivins’ demonstration was in “poor taste,” Wilson said. “But if you know Claudia and if you know the message she was trying to send, those of us who know her are very proud of her.”
Who is Vernon Dahmer?
Among those who initially found Bivins’ actions off-putting were members of Dahmer’s family.
Vernon Dahmer was a co-founder of the Hattiesburg chapter of the NAACP. In 1964, he came together with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to organize a voter registration movement.
His mantra was “if you don’t vote, you don’t count.”
The movement was met with threats of violence, and – for their work to register African-Americans to vote – the Dahmer family was met with threats of death.
After two years of working toward voter registration, Dahmer announced that he would help pay the poll taxes of those who could not afford it. The next day, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed Dahmer’s farm, killing him.
Confusion, concern, commendation
Dennis Dahmer was driving down the highway when his older brother, Vernon Jr., contacted him and told him about a woman who laid a Confederate flag on their father’s grave.
“Initially we really didn’t know what was going on. You see something like that especially in a place like Mississippi with the history it has, you don’t know what to think, but it’s usually not good.”
The Dahmer brothers had reason to have misgivings. The Mississippi Department of Public Safety is looking for suspects accused of placing a pair of nooses and signs with messages like “we’re hanging nooses to remind people that times haven’t changed” on Mississippi Capitol grounds on Monday.
But then, Dennis Dahmer learned that Bivins was an African-American activist, and that she intended to remove the flag later in the day.
Even after learning that Bivins intended to honor his father, Dennis Dahmer was concerned about her method. He worried that, like him, others would not know what message to take away.
He also discouraged using graves for any kind of activism for the sake of the loved ones of those buried.
“It brings back all kind of bad memories that we never forget. It brings you back,” Dahmer said.
Still, Dahmer said he commends Bivins for her activism.
“We just need more people to be vocal, to be visual about how they feel about what’s going in America right now,” Dahmer said.
“Now is the time to send that message loudly that ‘Hey, this stuff that’s going on is not the best of America.’”