He’s 71 now and his legs can’t carry him anywhere near the long distances he regularly marched for civil rights in his younger days.
For this presidential inauguration, Rance O’Quinn sat down and watched on television the embodiment of one of the Civil Rights Movement’s highest goals take the oath of office.
It’s been a long walk to Jan. 20, 2009, for the man born and raised in Centreville, Mississippi, a small town near the Louisiana border, a man whose father was shot in the back of the head on Aug. 14, 1959, for educating other black Americans on their rights.
Rance O’Quinn became president of the Springfield branch of the NAACP; a director of investigations for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination; worked at the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and as supervisor of investigations and acting area office director for the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in Boston.
There are names and dates, births, deaths and killings, the blessings of his family, paid and unpaid work to create a more perfect union, what he lost along the way and now, Barack Obama.
He has simple advice for the new president: “Steady as you go.”
The footprints leading to the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement are many and O’Quinn’s are there, steady as he went.
The quiet courage of a seamstress, Rosa Parks, who refused to sit at the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on Dec. 1, 1955; the heinous crimes committed by two white men against 15-year-old Emmett Till, just a few months before, on Aug. 28, 1955, in Money, Mississippi, for whistling at a white girl. O’Quinn was a junior in high school when he heard of Till’s torture and beating death and was awakened to the long road ahead.
In an interview at his Springfield home, where two of his infant granddaughters vied for his constant and gentle attention, he recalled how hopeful he was when in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education that schools could not be divided by color.
He thought change was coming for sure, and it would be fast.
But as he learned painfully over the years, and acutely when his own father, Samuel O’Quinn, was gunned down at his doorstep, change is the result of many steps, many votes, many years.
Just last year, then-President George W. Bush signed into law the Emmett Till Unresolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which reopens the investigations of civil rights murders in Mississippi.
The case of Samuel O’Quinn’s killing is among those that is under consideration for review.
Through the decades since his youth, Rance O’Quinn has worked to eradicate institutional racism. While Obama’s election is a sign of progress, the march doesn’t show an end in sight for human rights for all, he said.
“Everything has changed,” he said, “but everything has stayed the same.”
Still, when he and his wife of Shirley went to vote, he felt history in the pulse in his fingertips, the pounding of his heart, a tap on his shoulders.
As he stood in the voting booth and connected the broken arrow next to Obama’s name, he had a quiet moment of remembering his father.
“This is something my father had always wanted to do: to vote,” he said. “Even though I was the only one voting, it was something my father was doing as well.”
By the day’s end, Obama pulled a 10-million popular vote advantage over McCain, 70 million to 60 million, and 365 electoral votes of the needed 270 to win the presidency.
“It was a crying moment,” O’Quinn said.
For all practical purposes, Obama has been presidential, if not president, since his victory. Every day he has held press conferences to introduce his selections for Cabinet and other positions, released photos, or used public speeches to signal to Congress what he wants to get done.
“He’s got kitchen-table sense,” O’Quinn said.
He wishes he could have walked the mile-long National Mall in Washington, D.C., to witness the achievement of a nation that rose to its feet after centuries of deferring the dreams of millions of blacks.
In a first-person story published in 2004 in The Republican, O’Quinn’s daughter, Bea O’Quinn Dewberry, a journalist, wrote about the family’s summer trips from Massachusetts to Mississippi to visit her grandmother Ida. It was a 1,400-mile drive and the family slept and ate in the car as they traveled through the South.
“I thought sleeping and eating in the car was just part of the fun - sort of a camping trip on the road,” she wrote. “I learned later in life avoiding stops on the road was intentional.”
The ghosts of Samuel O’Quinn, young Emmett, of many others who were hung, beaten and shot, serve as guides.
O’Quinn and those who walked with him carried this country to this historic moment and by rights, they all should have had front-row seats at Obama’s inauguration.
But it was one trip too far. So as I stood at the inauguration, I kept thinking: Mr. O’Quinn, yes, please sit down, rest your aching feet. Millions of others are walking now.
Natalia Muñoz is editor of La Prensa of Western Massachusetts (www.LaPrensaMa.com)