Tennessee State Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis

By Clint Confehr

MEMPHIS, TN — One of the speakers at the Lorraine Motel during the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s passing 50 years earlier was state Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Memphis).

The program continued until 6:01 p.m. April 4 when a bell was rung to mark the time when Dr. King fell from a sniper’s bullet, fired from the bathroom of a boarding house across the street.

In late October, Turner was announced as two lifetime achievement award winners; recognized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

Because of a 6 p.m. deadline on April 4, some speakers couldn’t speak as long as they might. Rep. Turner returned to the lobby of the National Civil Rights Museum after she spoke. The Tennessee Tribune recorded a 45-minute interview in which Rep. Turner explained that it was segregated bus seats that motivated her to become a civil rights activist.

She told her story from that time in her life.

“My brother was 6 and I was 7,” Turner began. “We sat in the back of the bus because that’s where black folks sat. And this little white girl got on the bus and she looked at us, and pointed her finger to the back and said, ‘Mama! Look at all the niggers at the back.’

“All at once, I got this strange feeling that something must be wrong with me for her to refer to us that way …

“We had lived in an all black community, and only went to the stores that were in our neighborhood, so it was when we moved to the other side of town that we had to ride the bus,” Turner said. “I knew to get in the back because that’s what all the other blacks did, but I didn’t know why. When the little white girl said that, the word was like something dirty or ugly or something was wrong with me. I never forgot that.

“The second thing that happened with the bus was when I was in high school. I lived, here again, in an all black neighborhood in the late ’50s, and got on the bus in the black community, so you got to sit where you wanted to. We would sit from the mid-way on back, and we would hope that the whites wouldn’t get on and we’d have to move back. Some days, you wouldn’t. There were three schools that converged at Bellevue and Lamar. That was Central High School, Bellevue Junior High, and Bruce Elementary, and I’d always have a strange feeling in my stomach. ‘Ohh, I hope we can get away from here before these kids got on, because I may have to move to the back.’

“The buses had such a significance to me because we could only go to the zoo on Thursday night. We could only go to the fair on Monday night. When we were there, it was nothing but blacks, so the absence of whites didn’t mean anything because they were not a part of our life. But every time you got on a bus you were reminded that somebody thought they were better than you. So I hated the bus … the way it made you feel.

“And this day, I said, ‘I’m not going to move.’ I sat there. All the blacks got up. My girl friend who was sitting next to me quickly got up because she new the routine. So I sat there looking out the window like I didn’t see any of the white girls, and students were all around me.

“And she came and she tapped me on my shoulder and said ‘Johnnie if you don’t get up and move from this seat.’ She said, ‘You know all the drivers are white. All the policemen are white. All the firemen are white. All the judges are white. You might not make it back down town, and nobody would do anything about it.’

“I died a thousand deaths as I slowly walked to the back of that bus. What made it so humiliating was that the girls started giggling because I had to get up. I guess it was the giggling of the girls, the anger I felt, the humiliation I felt, so that when the sit-in movement came, I was ready. Because of that experience, I said, ‘I don’t want anybody to have to feel like I felt that day.’

“So when the sit-in movement arrived, I was right there,” Turner said. “I was arrested and fined. I was arrested several times. I sat in everywhere with the students.

“I remember when the buses were integrated. It all started on the buses. The buses were integrated in 1960. By that time I was a student at LeMoyne-Owen College.

“When the buses were integrated … we had moved out east and I lived on the last street that separated the white community from the black community. Since I was on a four-year scholarship, I never went into the Rec Hall” and studied instead.

“We didn’t have any books at home, so I knew how important it was for me to stay in school. I was the first person in my family to have an opportunity to get a college education. I also recognized that it was the only way to bring myself and my family out of poverty; to be able to teach. That was the dream. So, I would be the last one to leave the library every night because I would be sure to have all my homework done.

“And I would get on the No. 4 Walker Street [bus]. It had an all-black ridership so it didn’t matter where you sat.

“When I’d get to Vance and Lauderdale, I had to transfer to a No. 9 Normal [bus] which had mixed ridership and I would get on the bus, and the buses had just been integrated but all the blacks would sit in the back. I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now … Those of us who were arrested, if you told them who your mother and father were, the parents would lose their jobs. They’d publish the names of the parents in the paper. So, I saw so many of my friends, and I agonized because I really wanted to participate in this. I said, how am I going to do it? So one day I said, I know what I’m going to do. I’ll just tell them ‘I live with my grandpar-mama. Both my parents are dead and she’s unemployed.’ That’s how I got in the movement.

“But getting back to that bus the No. 9 Normal; I would sit right behind the driver. There were about 10 white men dressed in suites [riding the bus.] Everybody knew the white women stayed at home and took care of the family and the children. They didn’t work. So, it’d be about 10 well-dressed, white men and then all the blacks, the maids, the cooks, and the others who did many-a-task were in the back, all the way in the back, and I’d say, ‘What? The buses are integrated. Why won’t they move up?’ But I came to know, if they moved up and if they were arrested, they’d have lost their jobs. And plus, they were scared. Everything was fine and dandy until all the [other] blacks got off and I was the only black on that bus, sitting right behind the driver. Those white men called me everything but a child of God. And on two occasions, once by a drunk, they took my arm. I was holding onto this post right behind the driver and they took my arm to pull my arm to pull me off the seat. I just closed my eyes and prayed like I never prayed before. I said, ‘Lord, if you just left me get off this bus, just one more night …’ But the next night, I got right back on that bus.

“The thing about it was that the driver was so bad. He was awful. This experiences on that bus were so dramatic that I kind of got a PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]. For years, I said “Something awful happened to me, and I don ’t remember what it was.’ Then one day, the Black Writers Club asked me if I would come and speak to them about my experiences because, in addition to that experience, I graduated No. 2 in my class, at LeMoyne-Owen College, and automatically on the night of graduation, all the under-graduates were [normally] given a teaching certificate, but because I had been in the sit-in movement, they discontinued that tradition that night and I didn’t get a job.”

LeMoyne-Owen College is an Historically Black College or University.

“Yeah,” Turner confirmed, “but the [local school] board was all white. All other schools were white, and I went to a black school. Black teachers taught black kids … but you had to be hired by the system.

“Then I was finally interviewed,” she continued. “I worked in a bank one year and a savings and loan, and so people knew that I hadn’t gotten a job because I had been in the sit-in movement, so the Black Writers Club called me and asked me if I would come and tell my story.

“So I sat and got the pen and paper, and then I remembered all those experiences on that bus.

“There had been something traumatic in my life and I repressed it.

“It was the bus,” she said.

“The driver would wait for me to get up to get off.

“I wouldn’t go out the back door. Blacks were supposed to go out the back door. And then he’d jerk the bus to try to make me fall with my books. And in the wintertime, when I’d get to the door and I’d try to step off, he’d close the door to catch my coat. When he was really mad, he’d take me into the white community and here’s this black girl after 10 o’clock at night in the white community having to walk three blocks. Now, I could have gotten off with the blacks and walk only a couple of blocks, but I refused to do that. I said I’ve got a right to ride [and get off the bus from the front door] so night after night, I endured that. And I couldn’t tell anybody about it. That was the worst part. The movement was over. The lawyers who got us out of jail were back in their practices. All the hoopla was over. And I couldn’t tell my momma and dad because they told me not to get involved. I knew that if I told them, they’d worry about my safety.

“That whole winter, I’d get on the bus and it was like a routine, how they would taunt me and all the awful things they said to me.

“I said, ‘If Rosa Parks can do it. I can too.’

“I didn’t know that Rosa Parks was planned, that she was chosen to sit on that bus, and all the lawyers and everything [was planned]. I didn’t know that. [But] that served as my motivation because I knew that the bus in my life from that experience from when I was 7 years old.”

Riding the bus wasn’t the only indignity African Americans endured.

It included “having to sit in the pigeon roost in the movie theater,” she said of the balcony for blacks in theaters. “And we had to drink out of the colored fountain. I just refused to drink out of it.

“I always knew it was wrong because I knew I was just as good as anybody else. I used to baby sit white folks kids and I said, ‘They aren’t any smarter than I am. So that myth is out of the window.’”

Other incidents motivated her. 

When President Kennedy was running for re-election, “he spoke at the airport. We were sitting in a restaurant at the airport in the white section and we got arrested. I thought I’d get a chance to hear him, but, shoot, they put us in the paddy wagon and took us downtown, and on that one [sit-in], I think I was the only one detained and they told me ‘We’re keeping you because you’re a habitual criminal.’

“They wanted to know how much they paid me [to demonstrate]. I said, ‘They didn’t pay me.’

“‘They did pay you?’

“I said “No,’

“‘Then why did you do it?’

“And that’s the same question the school board asked me when I finally got a job.

“They said, ‘Why did you do it?’

“I said, ‘You’d have to live as black person,’ — well, a colored person at that time, which was acceptable at the time — ‘to know what it’s like to be treated like a second class citizen.’

“But anyway, they kept me [when Kennedy spoke] and put me in a room … with people who had mental challenges. I had on my beautiful white dress. We were dressed, because they said we were ‘nasty’ and we’d ‘stink,’ so every time we’d sit in, we’d be well dressed and I kept my nice dress on all night long and they got me out the next morning.

“But back to the school system. I was working at a savings and loan association [when interviewed.] It was Mutual Federal, all black owned, the first we had in Memphis, and Tri-State Bank, I worked there first because they [the school system] didn’t hire me. So I got this application in the mail and they asked, ‘Are you still interested in teaching?’ And of course I was. I was was probably making about one third of what I’d have been making had I taught. So I sent the application back and they set a time for me. When I got there, the director of personnel interviewed me instead of someone on the regular staff, and the first thing he asked me was ‘Why did you do it?’ I said, ‘There is no way I could explain to you why I did it, because you have had the privileges that I have not had, simply because of the color of my skin. You relegate me to go to certain events on a certain day. I have to sit up in the pigeon roost in the movie. You have white and colored water and I refuse to drink that. You have white and colored restrooms. [Black] women can’t try on the hats in the stores …’

“He said, ‘Well, you will never be hired by Memphis City Schools because you are a jailbird, and would be a poor role model for the students.’’

Turner eventually got the job.

“But let me tell you how. After the interview, I got outside and at the time I had a photographic memory, and I [mentally] recorded everything he said to me. I called the NAACP, read to them what he said to me, what I had on my steno pad, and so he told me, ‘We’re taking it to court.’ About a week and a half later, I got a call saying I had a job … because they threatened a lawsuit.

“They never filed the complaint in court. They didn’t have to.

“I started out teaching elementary school. I was a history major, because I love history, but in my sophomore year my counselor said, ‘History teachers never retire. Babies are born every day. You can always get an elementary teaching job.’

“The NAACP lawyers represented us in all the cases; like Dr. Benjamin Lawson Hooks, A.W. Willis, H.T. Lockard, Ben F. Jones, and Odell Horton.

“All these civil rights lawyers represented us for free. In the instances where a bond had to be paid, the churches donated to pay our bond, so it was like we’d get in jail and most of the time, we’d get out the same day.

“After I finally got a job, the second year, I was nominated for inclusion in Outstanding Teachers in America, and I was chosen to teach in a special program because I was teaching regular students and then they had me teach students who were two years behind in reading and math. Then they selected me to teach the gifted, then I became a supervisor teacher and then a director of staff development, and I left the Memphis City Schools after 30 years when I was serving as co-director of the professional assessment and development center for assistant principals and supervisors who wanted to be principals.

“Looking back, I say, ‘They didn’t hire me because I was in the sit-in movement, but when they hired me, they recognized the talents they said I had which applied to the job.

“Then I became the executive director of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP. I stayed in that position for 14 years.

“At the time my husband was the state representative and when he passed in November of 2009, I was convinced to run for his seat, and I was sworn in on Jan. 10, 2010.

“I will serve until Nov. 7, 2018 at midnight when my term will cease to exist because I’m retiring.”

At the time on April 4, 2018, she said, “Tomorrow is the last day to file [a petition to be named on the ballot.] There are five people who have already signed up for it. I announced that I wasn’t running because it wasn’t fair to my constituents or those who’d want to run.”

Turner was told that Dr. Ben Chavis, president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, has said that often people see the glass as half empty, but it’s worthwhile to see the progress that’s been made since black people were not allowed to sit in the front of the bus.

Turner was asked for her view on progress.

“Our neighborhoods are integrated, of course,” she replied. “They were integrated in 1968, but so many changes have taken place. The zoo was desegregated, the fairgrounds, the schools, the water fountains. We later found out the white water fountains had cool water and the colored water was not.

“I couldn’t go to the University of Memphis because it was for whites only. Now I have my masters fro that university.

“A lot of improvements have been made.”

Now, she said, “What we are working on is changing the hearts of people.

“And of course, 45 hasn’t made that any easier because of the resurgence of the hate mongers, or those who have repressed their prejudiced views, who are now bold enough to be the Charlottesville, or wherever they live. They may live in Nashville, or in Memphis, but they still harbor those feelings of superiority and those feelings that we are less than they are; that we don’t deserve this, and they are going to make America great again. And what they mean by that is to repress us and elevate themselves. Dr. King would be totally disappointed in that now, but of course we know that 45 is in office …”

About passage of the Voting Rights Act: “In my position with the NAACP, that was paramount, getting people registered to vote and educating them that every aspect of our lives is governed by politics because when you elect a leader that leader has the power to appoint people to positions that people never thought about.

“The mayor appoints the director of the utility company,” Turner continued. “So if you are dissatisfied in your electric bill, or your gas bill, you need to elect somebody who is more sensitive to that, but you can’t do it unless you vote.

“When I speak to audiences, I try to make the scenario, like you get up in the morning and throw that blanket back; there is some law that governed the composition of that blanket, and when you put your foot on the floor, there’s some law or ordinance dealing with the quality of that wood, otherwise it would crack and you might fall through the floor.

“Every part of your life, there is a law, or ordinance, a rule or regulation that emanated from the person at the top by the person who they appointed to carry out that missive, so voting has been our salvation.

“I have never missed an election in my life,” she said. “Before I got into politics, I was active in somebody’s campaign, every election. I try to teach that to young people, because you get what you don’t vote for if you don’t exercise that right. To me, voting is extremely important. You can put people in place who think like you do, who are concerned like you.

“Compare the time of the Sanitation Workers’ strike with Mayor Henry Lobe,” Turner said. That mayor “was insensitive to the needs, poverty, and the challenges that the workers faced. Compare that to Dr. Willie Harrison, the first African American elected mayor of Memphis. [He won] by 142 votes. They said that was about one vote per precinct.

“Getting registered and not voting is a waste of time,” she said. “Vote for the candidate who represents your beliefs.

“When Dr. King came to Memphis, I was mesmerized I had never seen anybody as eloquent, as dynamic, as motivating, and his voice was inspirational and I said, ‘What kind of man is this?’

“I was there April 3, 1968 when he gave his ‘I’ve Been to the Mountain Top’ speech. I even was in Washington, D.C. in 1963 when he gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and I have been back every 10 years for the celebration of that.”

Turner is “extremely proud of her service as executive director of the NAACP Branch in Memphis because of all the times the association had gotten her out of jail. We sat-in at the libraries and then at the public facilities – a public park.

“There was a Youth for Christ’ rally advertised in Overton Park Shell, Memphis … and it’s paid for out of public funds. When I bought a Coke, the taxes I paid helped underwrite the park.”

In Overton Park, the Levitt Shell is an open-air amphitheater.

“We decided to go to the rally, went in, sat down and put a dollar in the collection plate, which was a lot of money for me back then. And as soon as I put the dollar in the collection plate, the policeman tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘You are under arrest.’ That case went all the way to the Supreme Court twice because the Supreme Court refused to hear it. It was one of the most difficult cases that the NAACP had. It was the right of the church to let whomever they wanted in vs. my right to use a public facility. My take on that was, ‘If you didn’t want me in the public pavilion, then you should have had it in your church, because my taxpayer money was paying for this … We never thought we’d get arrested. It never crossed our mind. Now, we did try to integrate some of the churches and they would just tell us at the door, that they wouldn’t let us in. Of course all of those people called us back and apologized and have done all kinds of great things for us.

“As a result of that arrest, I was sentenced, and we went though the parole board. My first visit to Nashville was to go before the parole board to seek a pardon or whatever it was the lawyers were asking for … but the parole board refused to grant it. We were told we had to serve the sentence.”

Tennessee’s governor at the time was Frank Clement. He “granted executive clemency and that was the only reason I was not taken to jail at that time.”

Turner says that Dr. King “was like a God. He represented the best of our people, so he was easy to follow … The day he was assassinated was the worst. It was worse than losing a family member. It was the saddest day. We lost our leader. He had inspired and motivate so many people.

“The last march he led was on March 28. I was in that march and I forced my brothers to go with me … That’s the one that broke-out where they shattered every window on Beale Street. The FBI had infiltrated and gotten these young thugs and at a certain moment … every glass on Beale Street was shattered. They whisked Dr. King away immediately He was up front because they didn’t want him to get hurt because he was also planing the Poor People’s March in Washington. We later found out from the FBI files, and all the subsequent information that came up, that they were trying to discredit him because they said if we can prove that he can’t lead a peaceful march in Memphis, then we’ll have a legitimate right to exclude him from this march in Washington. That was the most terrifying march I attended because I had my brothers with me. They were 12 years old. One black, a 15-year-old, who wasn’t even in the march was killed. His mother had sent him to the grocery store.

“The significant thing about the March 28 march was that Dr. King felt compelled — even though he was working on the Poor People’s March and that was his priority — to come back to lead a peaceful march. That’s why he came back.

“If March 28 had been peaceful, he would not have come back …”

Turner took time off from working at the state Legislature for that day, April 4, 2018. The speaker of the Tennessee House did not declare a day off for the lawmakers in remembrance of King’s death — “You know,  with Republican control, that’s not going to happen” — so Turner and others, just took two days off.

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...