Dorie Ann Ladner, civil rights activist who fought for justice in Mississippi and beyond, dies at 81

Mar 13, 2024, 1:51 PM

Dorie Ann Ladner, a longtime fighter for freedom and equality in her home state of Mississippi with contributions to the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and voter registration drives, has died, her family confirmed.

“My beloved sister, Dorie Ladner, died peacefully on Monday, March 11, 2024,” her younger sister, Joyce Ladner, wrote on Facebook. “She will always be my big sister who fought tenaciously for the underdog and the dispossessed. She left a profound legacy of service.”

Dorie Ladner was 81.

In a telephone interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Joyce Ladner said she and her sister were born 15 months apart and grew up in Palmer’s Crossing, a community just south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

“My sister was extraordinary. She was a very strong and tough person and very courageous,” she said.

One example of that courage, she recalled, happened when they were about 12 years old and went to a store to buy donuts.

“The white cashier came up behind Dorie and hit her on the butt. She turned around and beat him over the head with those donuts,” Joyce Ladner said with a giggle.

“We were scared but you know how you have that feeling of knowing you had done the right thing? That’s what overcame us,” she said.

Dorie Ladner and her sister went on to help organize an NAACP Youth Council Chapter in Hattiesburg. When they attended Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, they continued demonstrating against the segregation policies within the state. Those activities ultimately got both of them expelled from the school but in fall 1961, they both enrolled at Tougaloo College where they became active members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“SNCC was the green beret of the civil rights movement,” Joyce Ladner said. “She dropped out of college three times to work full time with SNCC. She was extremely intense about the rights of Black people. She would tell me ‘I can’t study while our people are suffering.’”

Dorie Ladner was one of the first workers to go to Natchez, Mississippi in 1967, to help people register to vote, her sister said. The experience was harrowing at times, amid heightened Ku Klux Klan activity.

“Oftentimes the phone would ring at 3 a.m. which was never a good sign,” she said. “The person on the other end of the line would say ‘Dorie, y’all have two choices. You can stay in there and we’ll burn you and the house up or you can come outside and we’ll shoot you to death.’ That kind of stress would be unbearable for almost anyone, but they stayed.”

Ladner said one of the people her sister helped register to vote was Fannie Lou Hamer, who often said that experience and her involvement with SNCC helped her find her voice for freedom. She also knew other civil rights luminaries such as NAACP state field representative Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in 1963; Hattiesburg NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer and Clyde Kennard, another NAACP leader who had attempted to integrate the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

Dorie Ladner was a key organizer for Mississippi Freedom Summer, a volunteer campaign launched in June 1964 to attempt to register as many African American voters as possible in Mississippi. She also attended every major civil rights protest from 1963 to 1968, including the March on Washington and the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Joyce Ladner said.

Dorie Ladner died in Washington, D.C., where she called home since 1974, her sister said.

“She became a social worker and worked in the ER at DC General Hospital for 28 years,” she said. “That was an extension of her organizing and fighting for people, helping people through their crises.”

In addition to Ladner, Dorie Ladner’s survivors include her daughter, Yodit Churnet, and a 13-year-old grandson “who she doted on,” Ladner said.

A memorial service is pending.

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Dorie Ann Ladner, civil rights activist who fought for justice in Mississippi and beyond, dies at 81