At a time when Mississippi was one of the most dangerous places in the South for African Americans and civil rights workers, Dorie Ladner joined and led marches and sit-ins, mounted voter registration drives, and helped organize events, including the 1963 March on Washington. Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post

Dorie Ladner, who joined the civil rights movement as a teenager in Mississippi, braving gunfire, tear gas, police dogs and Ku Klux Klansmen in an undaunted campaign for racial equality, died March 11 at a hospital in Washington. She was 81.

The cause was respiratory failure, said her sister Joyce Ladner, a constant companion in her activism and former interim president of Howard University.

Dorie Ladner was 11 months younger than Emmett Till, an African American who was 14 when he was lynched in the Mississippi Delta in 1955, his mutilated body tethered with barbed wire to a cotton gin fan and submerged in the Tallahatchie River.

For their entire lives, Ladner and her sister, her junior by a year, had endured the indignities of life as African Americans in the Jim Crow South – the rides in the back of the bus, the restrooms and drinking fountains for Black people only, the segregated schools, the secondhand textbooks passed down by White students.

But with Till’s death, “I was enraged, but I did not know what to do with that anger,” Dorie Ladner told an interviewer years later. “His murder made me aware of my Blackness.”

On the encouragement of activists including Vernon Dahmer Sr., a family friend and local NAACP leader who would later be killed in a KKK firebombing of his home, Dorie and Joyce Ladner joined a youth chapter of the NAACP in Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1959, when they were in high school.

As students at Tougaloo College, a historically Black school in Jackson, Miss., the Ladner sisters joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, widely known as SNCC, which became a principal organizer of the civil rights movement.

Having decided that she couldn’t stay in school and “know my people are suffering,” Dorie Ladner dropped out of Tougaloo and for much of the 1960s devoted herself full-time to her activism.

“The line was drawn in the sand for Blacks and for Whites,” she said years later in an interview with PBS’s “American Experience.” “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.”

At a time when Mississippi was one of the most dangerous places in the South for African Americans and civil rights workers, Ladner joined and led marches and sit-ins, mounted voter registration drives, and helped organize events including the 1963 March on Washington.

She traveled widely, encouraging Black people around the country to embrace their right to vote. She told one crowd in St. Louis that anyone who did not vote “should hang your head in shame,” explaining that in the South, “we have been shot at, beaten, cut and jailed for just trying to register to vote.”

“I gathered any courage I could from both Dorie and Joyce for being in Mississippi,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who worked there alongside the sisters as an SNCC activist. “They were fearless at a time when it was often that you took your life in your own hands to be in that state. It was they who encouraged me to come, and who encouraged me while I was there.”

The sit-in movement had been touched off on Feb. 1, 1960, when four Black college students sat down at a White-only lunch counter at an F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime store in downtown Greensboro, N.C. In Mississippi, where a more virulent strain of racism prevailed, many activists regarded sit-ins as too dangerous.

But “Dorie was a doer,” recalled Freddie Greene Biddle, a fellow SNCC activist in Mississippi. “There was nothing that Dorie wouldn’t do. She went into all the areas that were tough and hard to be in. She was out front.”

In addition to participating in some of the first sit-ins to be held in Mississippi, Ladner played a leading role in voter registration drives across the state.

“This is the first time, really, that I’m seeing a young Black woman … doing something like this – braving the same kind of terror,” recalled SNCC activist Charlie Cobb, who worked with Ladner on voter registration drives in the Delta.

Ladner was arrested repeatedly for her activism, including for demonstrating at the funeral of Medgar Evers, the NAACP leader who was fatally shot outside his home in Jackson on June 12, 1963. Ladner was among the activists who had eaten dinner with him hours earlier.

Later that summer, she and her sister moved to New York City and worked with the SNCC office there to lay plans for the March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963.

Along with Norton, the sisters shared an apartment in New York, where folk singer Bob Dylan, one of the musicians who performed at the march, would often drop by and play his guitar.

Ladner stood backstage at the march, gazing out at the sea of people who had thronged outside the Lincoln Memorial. But the next day, Ladner and her sister were on their way back to Mississippi.

“The march was one day,” Dorie Ladner told the Gannett News Service decades later. “But we had to go back to the battlefield.”

Dorie Ann Ladner, one of nine children, was born in Hattiesburg on June 28, 1942, and grew up in the nearby Black community of Palmers Crossing, where she was raised by her mother, a homemaker, and her stepfather, a diesel mechanic.

Ladner’s mother instilled in her the courage that she would carry into the civil rights movement.

Once, when she was 12, Dorie stopped into a corner grocery store where a White cashier made a pass at her. Dorie beat him over the head with a bag of doughnuts, her sister recalled. When the sisters reported to their mother what had happened, she said that Dorie should have killed him and that she must never allow a White man to treat her that way.

“Ordinarily that kind of thing could have caused our house to be burned down, but nothing happened because the White people knew that my mother was no-nonsense,” Joyce Ladner recalled. “Plus they knew the man was wrong.”

Despite the difference in their age, Joyce and Dorie finished high school together as valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively.

“Dorie was more feisty, and Joyce was more intellectual,” said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights era. “But each of them was a little bit of the other.”

The sisters enrolled first at Jackson State College (now University), a historically Black institution in Mississippi. They later moved to Tougaloo, where many students and professors were at the vanguard of the civil rights movement.

In the late 1960s, Dorie Ladner worked with the Congress of Racial Equality and on anti-poverty prograLadner eventually returned to Tougaloo to complete her degree, receiving a bachelor’s in history in 1973.

Ladner later moved to Washington to attend Howard University, where she received a master of social work degree in 1975, and worked for three decades as an emergency-room social worker at the now-closed D.C. General Hospital.

Her work in the civil rights movement, she said, gave her “an ability to see injustices, and to want to deal with them in the workplace, politically, in your apartment building, on your street, wherever you are.”

Her marriage to Hailu Churnet ended in divorce. Survivors include their daughter, Yodit Churnet, of Washington; four sisters; three brothers; and a grandson. Joyce Ladner, a professor of sociology, served as interim president at Howard from 1994 to 1995.

Despite the many gains of the civil rights movement, Ladner and her sister reflected with anguish on what they saw as the work that remained left to be done.

“When I saw that man strolling through the Capitol on January 6th, waving that oversized Confederate flag, I was not surprised,” Joyce Ladner told The Washington Post in 2021, referring to the attack on the U.S. Capitol that year by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

“The war,” Dorie Ladner remarked, “is not over.”

Comments are no longer available on this story