C. O. Chinn was an integral figure in the civil rights movement in Canton, Mississippi. Known for his bravery and strength, Chinn had what scholar John Dittmer calls a “deserved reputation for courage and stubbornness.” Chinn’s actions demonstrated the sacrifices made by Mississippi’s black civil rights leaders, as he lost much of his property and was frequently jailed, including serving time on a chain gang.
Chinn was born on 18 September 1919 to a family that owned 154 acres in Farmhaven, Madison County. He received little formal education but became a leading businessman in Canton, owning a café on Franklin Street. His wife, Minnie Lou, and their children were active in civil rights work. Minnie Lou Chinn worked to organize teenage volunteers and to distribute shipments of clothing and food to the largely impoverished community. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member Anne Moody, who worked on voter registration in Canton, described the Chinns as “the one Negro family in Canton who had put their heads on the chopping block,” fearless in the face of economic and violent reprisals. Flonzie Brown Wright, a friend of the family and Mississippi’s first black female elected official, noted that the Chinns frequently provided shelter and protection for civil rights workers and thus “set the standards of courage for those of us who later became involved.”
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had an office adjacent to Chinn’s café, and he provided a building for a proposed community center. The Chinn family’s Club Desire (where entertainers such as James Brown performed) was also the site of twice-weekly CORE meetings. In the summer of 1963 the drive for voter registration intensified, and Chinn began working with the movement full time. According to Moody, Chinn’s heightened involvement was “the luckiest thing that happened to us. . . . [H]e was a powerful man, known as ‘bad-ass C. O. Chinn’ to the Negroes and white alike. All of the Negroes respected him for standing up and being a man. Most of the whites feared him.” Chinn spoke effectively in area churches, recruiting people to register to vote. His activities brought reprisals from Canton whites, and he was forced to close his café and was frequently arrested on spurious charges. The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission closely followed Chinn’s activities, and hundreds of documents in the commission’s archive track his movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The files describe Chinn as Charles Evers’s bodyguard on several occasions, as a leader of boycotts of stores that would not serve or hire blacks, and as the “number one troublemaker in Madison County.” The files also noted Chinn’s work with the Child Development Group of Mississippi, providing transportation for children attending centers in Madison County.
The day before marchers participating in James Meredith’s 1966 March against Fear were scheduled to arrive in Canton, a group of whites attempted to bomb the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party headquarters. After Chinn and others chased the carload of bombers, he was accused of shooting one of the white men in the arm and was arrested for “assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.” He denied the charge but was found guilty at an October 1966 trial. He was granted a retrial in 1968 and was again found guilty, but the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed that decision based on “substantial errors” and prejudicial instructions from the court to the jury. . In 1970, Chinn was found guilty of killing a different man, Vernon Ricks, though Chinn asserted that he had shot Ricks in self-defense. Chinn was sentenced to twenty years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary and served time before his release in the late 1970s.
Chinn continued as a community leader in Madison County, and the Headstart in Canton was named in his honor, along with Annie Devine and E. W. Garrett. Before his death on 19 July 1999 from colon cancer, Chinn saw his son, Robert, and daughter-in-law, Mamie Chinn, become judges. Alice Scott, Canton’s first black mayor, cited Chinn as an inspiration, noting that “his perseverance, endurance, and his insistence in making things better helped pave the way for where I am.”
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Linda Man, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (23 July 1999); Memphis Commercial Appeal (10 April 1973)
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Sovereignty Commission Online website, http://mdah.state.ms.us/arrec/digital_archives/sovcom/
- Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)
- New York Times (23 July 1999)
- Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)