Maxine Cousin, whose father’s violent death in 1983 in the now-defunct city jail launched her on a 34-year campaign for equal rights and justice – notably as a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit which led to the restructuring of Chattanooga government in 1989 – died last week in a local hospital. She was 71.
Wadie Suttles, a 66-year-old WWII veteran, was declared dead Dec.
6, 1983, four days after being found unconscious in his cell at Chattanooga City Jail and transported to a hospital.
Although police initially said Mr. Suttles died of a heart attack, an autopsy revealed Ms. Cousin’s father actually had suffered severe head trauma which resulted in damage to his brainstem. Decades later, despite scrutiny by a variety of law enforcement agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, no arrests have ever been made in the case and no assailants publicly identified by authorities.
In August 1984, frustrated by the failure of law enforcement and prosecution officials to identify her father’s killer(s) and bring charges, Ms. Cousin helped found Concerned Citizens for Justice (CCJ), a local organization dedicated to fighting racism and police brutality.
Three years later, Ms. Cousin and other CCJ members approached the American Civil Liberties Union in Atlanta about the possibility of filing a lawsuit aimed at ending systematic under-representation of Chattanooga’s black population in city government.
The resulting suit, Brown v. The Board of Commissioners of the City of Chattanooga – filed by 12 plaintiffs, including Ms. Cousin – argued successfully that the city was discriminating against minority groups by choosing representatives at-large, rather than by district.
In 1989, in an historic decision, U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar agreed with the plaintiffs, declaring that Chattanooga’s commission-style government violated the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 by preventing political representation of minority voters.
The city responded by creating its current mayor-council form of government and dividing the city into nine political districts, three of which were drawn so that their population was at least 60 percent minority.
Buoyed by that success, Ms. Cousin – who spent decades as a secretary at the Tennessee Valley Authority prior to her retirement – devoted the following 29 years to activist politics and campaigning against police brutality here and across the nation.
She also continued her quest to find justice for her father, filing lawsuit after lawsuit and petitioning national and international organizations to investigate the case. In 2010, she published a 323-page book titled “Murder in a Chattanooga Jail.”
Ms. Cousin is survived by a daughter, Carla Cousin; a son, Ivan Cousin; sisters Patricia Emmons and Laviolet Millsaps; eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at noon today (Monday) in the chapel of Taylor Funeral Home. Burial will follow in Chattanooga National Cemetery.