Rebel with a Cause: Albert Turner, Sr. (1936-2000)
Vol. 22, No. 2, 2000 pp. 24-26
Albert Turner, Sr., a lifelong Alabama activist who led voting rights campaigns, sit-ins, and marches for freedom and equal rights, who served under Martin Luther King, Jr. in SCLC, who was elected to the Perry County Commission, and who advised Presidents Johnson and Carter, passed away on April 14 at the age of sixty-four. For many years, he hosted the Perry County Civic League program on the local station WAJO in Marion, Alabama, which combined political, spiritual, and community activism. In 1990, Southern Changes editor Allen Tullos interviewed Turner about his life, his experiences, and his activism. Following is an excerpt from that interview.
I’ve never thought about leaving the Black Belt. I’ve always liked it here and I always wanted to live here. At the time I went to school, there were very few things that a black person could aspire to be. One was to be a school teacher and I didn’t want to be that. The white community and the white superintendents treated them like they were children. They were respected highly in the black community because that was the only professional group we had, but the way they were treated by the white boards was just outrageous.
I guess I have to admit–after I sat down and started back to thinking about my whole life–I’ve always been kind of a rebel. All the way through elementary school and high school. I didn’t know this when I was doing it. I was president of my class in high school, for instance, and I was in the student council and led insurrections in school. In college, at Alabama A & M, lied a couple of cafeteria boycotts and I was in leadership roles. I was president of my fraternity and active in the student council and student government. It was just natural for me.
I wanted to go to college and be educated, but I didn’t want to be a school teacher. So I had to think about something that I could do that I could make a decent dollar and not be bothered by the society. I resented the structure. I didn’t want to come in contact with the white folks’ system.
I chose being a bricklayer and nobody could understand why I would want to go into bricklaying. It was not me at all. I’ve always been kind of a studious person. I finished third in my class and always was trying to be the best so it just threw everybody for a loop for me to go into bricklaying. That was a cop-out. I just didn’t want to face the system and I thought that I could avoid it by being a bricklayer. Not knowing that I was going to run into all of those prejudices because the white man was the contractor and I still was going to have to work for him. I thought I could go out there and lay some bricks and come home and go to bed at night and not be bothered. I really was that naive and silly.
So I got fired a lot of times. I resented the boss-man thing and sometimes the other blacks out there were not what I expected; they would rat on you and they were cutthroats. I went into contracting. I started taking my own little jobs, building churches for black folks and stuff like this. I was a small contractor for about seven years but I never was satisfied. There was always that inward urge for this stuff that I am in and it was just covered for a little while.
Before King came to town in 1965, we were well organized in this county in ’62 and ’63. As the Perry County Civic League, we had already been to court and gotten federal registrars. We had had some serious protests, and written letters to the federal government, and gotten the Justice Department working in here trying to get the right to vote. King came to bolster what we’d already done; it was a platform from which to work. Eventually I became the state director for King and I got on his paid staff but at the beginning I was not.
People thought I was crazy at the time because I was really way out. I didn’t expect to be living today. That was one of the things that my father was fearful about. I was so rebellious. I really didn’t care. It didn’t bother me at all. If I had got killed, it didn’t matter. It really didn’t matter. That never phased me. I was just that determined to make a change in society. That drove me day in and day out Whatever it took. I had a family but I completely stopped working. I just did this twenty-four hours a day. Some people are cut out for certain things.
The problem of resources in the Black Belt is a big one. The resources are not in the hands of the black community and the white community is not in a frame of mind to share. So when they don’t want to share, you have only one choice; that’s take. And if you don’t want to take, you have to do without.
At this point in time, the black community has not brought itself around to a point of taking control. As a result, we are in a serious situation economically. Many black politicians who were elected were not prepared to go seriously at economic reform. The white community was able to influence enough of the black officials to basically keep things in status quo.
In Perry County, for instance, if we have three out of five people on an elected board who are black, you may have one or two people like myself who work hard to see some things happen. But then there’s the third black
person who will join with the two whites and you never really get things changed. The white community is able to find some black person who’s only interest is in showcasing or grandstanding. What that means is that they still primarily keep their same programs or their same philosophy intact even though you have what the outside world sees as black control. But it’s not truly black control. That’s a great indictment, but it’s the truth.
Now this is hard and most people call it radical, but new life doesn’t come until the old order passes.
In the Bible they use the phrase that old wine bags could not hold new wine. The new wine was fermenting and it would burst the old bag; it wouldn’t stretch. In the agricultural world, a new grain of corn is put into the earth and that grain of corn has to deteriorate and then a new stalk of corn comes up. In society our people cannot accept the fad that there is nothing new coming until the old gets out of the way or dies. They feel that there is some miracle way that that the old and the new can coexist. It has never been that way. New life or new birth comes only through the process of removing the old. Until people recognize that, we will be in the stalemate of trying to create some situation where you and I can sit in the same chair. It’s just impossible.
I think if white children had a chance to come up from kindergarten on through high school and college with black people they would learn that black people are just other people and their prejudice wouldn’t be the same. I think white folks also know that and I think that’s one of the reasons why they are so staunch about school integration and just won’t accept it. They will spend thousands and thousands of dollars trying to keep their children from going to school here because they feel that’s one place that they will learn each other and it is. And those who do go to
school together, it’s making a difference. It really is.
White society has been able to interpret Martin King’s philosophy and use it against us better than we have been able to take it and use it for ourselves. The average black person feels that the whole goal that Martin was about was simply the association of the people–you and I sitting in the same room. The white community has been able to use that against black people by saying, “Well, Martin King’s goal was to get the two races to sit down and be together.” Be together. That’s all they want to do is be together.
That’s not what Martin King was about by a long shot. But when you start taking about bringing on a new order or doing something different, they say you’re going against what Martin was about
Integration was a tool to bring us into the mainstream, not just so we could be with you. There was knowledge we could not get in the traditional black schools, for instance, because it was not being taught. We could not be doctors at Alabama AM; they didn’t teach it. There were many other subjects or professions that were not offered in the black schoolhouses. So we integrated schools for the purpose of learning how to be doctors, scientists, lawyers, etc., and people misinterpreted what we were integrating schools for.
When this country realized that Martin King was not about integration for the sake of integration, that’s when he was murdered.
Martin’s real goal was to bring black folks into the mainstream of American society so that they could survive and have the economic situation and political situation and all situations. He wanted us to just be full citizens; do whatever we wanted to do. To not be limited because you were a black person. In order to do that, we had to first be able to get into these places so that we could learn how to do things.
Most black people who had been cut off from white society or had worked as white servants feared white people and saw them as superior. The first stage of the Civil Rights Movement–the awareness or integrational stage–was to dispel that fear and have people understand that they had good minds and dignity and that they were the same as whites. But a lot of our people saw overcoming the humiliation of having to go to a separate bathroom as being the end. And in white society that’s the only thing they preach about the Civil Rights Movement–that phase of integration.
A lot of black folks let that hinder them from making real progress because they are concerned about whether or not I’m going to mistreat whites with it. Now that’s an absolute fact That’s a hard indictment, but it’s the truth. They cannot make these changes that’s got to be made in society because they are so concerned about whether I’m going to do wrong or mistreat this white man. But my thing is, as long as the society is messed up, then we cannot improve our economic plight under the same system that we had all along. We got to change that system. The system is where the problem is and we have not found enough black elected officials who are about changing that system. They want to sit in the same seat that Mr. Charlie sat in. That’s all they want to do-take that seat that he had, but nothing about changing the whole structure so that the poor or oppressed people will be able to be more a part of this society.
I see the new generation of blacks getting caught up into that syndrome. I’m a part of the ’60s and I understand it, but here my sons and daughters transcended that period and we did not teach it to them. They don’t realize what we came through. They got a chance to sit in the room with people at the University of Alabama and they really think they have arrived when there is almost as much prejudice today as it was then. We are still the last person hired and the first one fired. We still have to be able to do twice as much as a white person to be able to get the position. There are some laws or some court cases that demand that you have a few black people and that has created a worse situation for us because they always point and say all you got to do is work hard and you can have a good job because look where Charlie is. And we do have some percent of the black community now who is doing better but too often they seem to feel that all that the rest of the black people got to do now is do like I did-not realizing that they were put there through court cases. You have to have a certain number of black people everywhere now. So the rest of the blacks look down and say hey, you can get up here if you want to like I did. All you got to do is go to school and get a good education. That’s not really the case.
If there were masses of blacks trying to move, you’d have a problem. As long as you just got a few blacks in positions to satisfy a quota, nobody’s worried about it But you just let the whole black community start trying to become a part of this thing. That’s what Martin King’s goal was. Martin King was not somebody preaching a social gospel or some good little old pious preacher. He was serious about trying to improve the plight of black people and get them into the mainstream. Education, jobs, everything. I think the greatest thing he did was change the thinking of people. And that what’s wrong today. Our mentality again is not in the right way. Once people start thinking different, then they start acting different.
If I had to choose from the many activities that I’m involved in trying to make a change in society and I was left with just one, it would be the radio program. I’m still pretty well thought about. I still have a right smart influence and effectiveness that comes from the radio program every Sunday morning.
Now my radio program is a program in the traditional black way. It’s not billed as political. It’s supposed to be a spiritual program, a church program, a community announcement type thing. But because it is paid for by the Civic League, it lends itself to community politics. I think if it was strictly billed as political, there would be much resistance. But a lot of people–including white people–listen not necessarily because they like it, but they want to be informed.So I tell them about what’s going on in the government. State Senator Hank Sander comes on ever Sunday morning with me and talks about politics and Montgomery. We sit there and kind of chat and discuss things in a funny, kind of jokefied way. But the effect that program has is untold. Very few people ever mention it, but I know it’s my hidden welcome.
–Albert Turner Sr.