Friday, May 11, 2007

May 11

On 11 May 1970, a black Army veteran named Henry Marrow died outside a grocery store in Oxford, North Carolina. Marrow was beaten and then shot by three white men who objected to what they characterized as an inappropriate remark made by Marrow to a white woman -- a woman who happened to be the 18-year-old daughter-in-law of Robert Teel, the store owner. After a brief confrontation over the alleged remarks, the murderers -- Robert Teel, his son Larry and his stepson Roger Oakley -- chased Marrow from the store; as Marrow fled toward the highway, one of the men shot him in the leg, incapacitating him. The trio then pummeled Marrow with their rifle butts, fracturing his skull and breaking one of the guns in the process. One of the three then shot the near-unconscious man in the head as he pleaded for his life.

Marrow left behind a wife and twin daughters, with a third child only a few months from being born.

The killing of Henry Marrow occurred in open daylight, with multiple eyewitnesses. As the prosecutor later described it, “They shot him like a hog. They shot him like you or I would kill a snake.” Following Marrow’s death, the segregated black community of Oxford -- convinced that no one would ever be tried or convicted of the crime -- took out their anger on the business district of downtown Oxford, where two nights of rioting damaged nearly two dozen white-owned businesses. Rioters were unable, however, to pull down a local statue of a Confederate soldier. Meantime, local Klansmen armed with rifles and shotguns guarded the Teel house. Gun shops sold out of ammunition in the coming days, as Oxford’s white community prepared for an all-out race war that mercifully did not come.

An all-white jury acquitted Robert and Larry Teel on the implausible pretense that they were acting in self-defense. The killing of Henry Marrow and the acquittal of the Teels sparked a black boycott against white-owned businesses in the small town. By the end of the year -- six years after the passage of a federal civil rights law intended to prohibit racial discrimination -- the white community of Oxford agreed to desegregate the town’s commercial institutions.