Wednesday, March 05, 2008

From Hungry Blues

The Legacy of a Murder

Racial killings from the civil rights era still haunt families and the country.
By Benjamin Greenberg
Colorlines Magazine (March/April 2008)

“I heard a scream, and I said, ‘That’s Mother, that’s Mother.’ And we all started running to look.” It was August 14, 1959, near midnight, in Centreville, Mississippi. Laura O’Quinn Smith, then 33, and her brother Clarence, then 32, rushed from the house and found their father, Samuel O’Quinn, shot in the back outside of the front gate of Whitaker Plantation, the 235-acre family land.

Clarence got his mother and wounded father back into the car and drove to the Field Memorial Community Hospital. Samuel O’Quinn died en route, in the arms of his wife, Ida. He was 58 years old and the father of 11 children. No one has ever been charged with the crime.

Today, Laura and Clarence, now ages 81 and 80, are living in Springfield, Massachusetts, along with two other siblings, Phalba and Rance. They are one of numerous families who are still waiting for justice in racial murders from the civil rights era. “It would give closure for us,” said Phalba O’Quinn Plummer, who is now 71. “It would really help a lot for all of us to know what happened.”

The FBI is currently reviewing approximately 100 cases that it may reopen; 84 of the victims have been named, and of those, 34 are from Mississippi. The true number of unresolved cases, however, is unknown. A review of a relatively narrow set of FBI and state documents found references to at least seven murders in Mississippi that are not on the published FBI list.

The lack of justice for Samuel O’Quinn and other Blacks murdered during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s is the haunting background for current events that every so often lay bare the broken promises of a supposedly post-civil rights society: the double standard of justice meted out to the Jena 6; the vast numbers of people, overwhelmingly Black, treated as disposable during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; the Klan-like torture and rape of Megan Williams.

Last June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act (known as the “Till Bill”), which would allocate $13.5 million annually for a special FBI office and Civil Rights Division unit to investigate civil rights-era crimes in coordination with local and state authorities. The Till Bill passed the House in June, but Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma placed a hold on the bill, keeping it stuck in the Senate through at least the winter recess.
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The O’Quinns were a prosperous Black family in 1950’s Mississippi. A graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, Samuel O’Quinn was a certified plumber, electrician and carpenter. After working as the assistant town engineer and as the only plumber in Centreville, he opened O’Quinn’s Café with his wife, Ida, in 1937. He also owned and operated 33 jukeboxes throughout southwest Mississippi.

In the mid-1940s, O’Quinn obtained his mortician’s license and opened a funeral home. He sold the jukebox routes and invested in real estate. The O’Quinns owned most of the properties in the Quarters, which was lowincome housing for Blacks and essentially the ghetto of the small rural town of 1,200 people. They bought the Whitaker Plantation on Highway 33 in the late 1940s and farmed the land, raising and selling peppers, soy beans and cotton.

On Sundays, O’Quinn went from one church to another selling burial policies, which a person could pay into and eventually meet the cost of his or her own burial. During these visits, he also organized benevolent associations, community groups that together paid into a fund for community members when they were in need.

“It was kind of a self-help group,” explained Rance O’Quinn, one of Samuel O’Quinn’s sons, now 70, “but they later grew, and every time you organize people, others get suspicious.”

The O’Quinns were, in fact, as well-to-do as anyone in Centreville, Black or white. The 11 O’Quinn children never had to work for whites, which was most unusual and an affront to the white supremacist mentality of the time.

On August 14, 1959, Samuel O’Quinn picked up his wife at their café, just off Main Street, as he did every night at 11:00 pm. That night, their 7-year-old son, Roy, was with Ida at the café. On the ride home, Roy stood between his parents on the front seat. As usual, O’Quinn stopped, got out of the car to open their front gate and then drove the car in. He was shot when he got back out of the car to shut the gate.

(Photo: Samuel O’Quinn, early 1950s. Courtesy of Rance O’Quinn.)

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