For the last 11 years, Johnnie Turner has presided over the Memphis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It's a job she came well-prepared to tackle. Growing up in segregated Memphis, Turner had her share of "back of the bus" moments, sit-ins, and arrests, and she's been fighting discrimination ever since. After graduating from LeMoyne College with a teaching degree, and after initially being turned away from the city school system for her "civil disobedience," she fought for her right to teach. Once hired, Turner rose through the ranks, winning teaching awards and overseeing the CLUE program for gifted children, working with the NAACP all the while. When then-NAACP Executive Director Maxine Smith announced her retirement, Turner was urged to apply. The rest, as she'll tell you, is history. >>>
The city was segregated and discrimination was the norm when you were growing up, but was there a specific incident — a catalyst — for your involvement in the movement?
Segregation was always a reminder that someone thought that they were superior to me, and I knew better. One day my girlfriend and I were on the bus when it stopped for a group of white kids. My friend moved immediately but I just looked out the window, pretended I didn't see them. My friend told me, "If you don't move the driver is going to call the police." So I got up. But I will never forget the humiliation. The anger I experienced, particularly when the white girl that took my seat giggled as I walked to the back of the bus.
Sounds like you were a bit too young to take a stand just yet.
Yes, but by the time the sit-ins came to Memphis I was ready. My mother asked me not to become involved because she feared for my life. But this was a moment whose time had come. There was a revolution going on; a revolution to achieve justice and freedom and human rights for all of God's children.
Tell me about the sit-ins and getting arrested during college.
There was an announcement in the paper for a Youth for Christ Rally at the Overton Park Shell. It didn't say "for whites only," so we felt we had a right to be there. There were about 20 of us, and they asked us to sit in the back. Said we were late. We weren't late, we weren't disruptive, and we weren't gonna sit in the back. And as soon as the collection was taken the police took us. It went on in the courts for years and eventually made it to the Supreme Court.
But after college, you did get to become a schoolteacher, in spite of the criminal record?
I applied and was told no because I was a "habitual criminal," and a "poor role model." Jesse Turner said the NAACP was going to sue the school board. I was eventually hired. Because I had been out in the community I brought a perspective to the teaching position that most teachers don't have when they come straight from college.
So what made you leave teaching to run the NAACP?
They called and asked me if I would apply. I told them anybody who'd follow Maxine is crazy. She's a legend! My husband told me, "You already give your life to the NAACP, and few people have the opportunity in life to make a difference." So I did. Maxine had done such a great job, it wasn't as if I had to build from the ground up. I had a firm foundation.
The rights the NAACP fought for in the beginning have been granted. What are you fighting for now?
We focus on education and empowering our people economically. Sure, The Peabody is open to everyone now, but if your pocketbook can't get you in the door, then what benefit is it?
Does the NAACP partner with other groups — gay rights groups for example?
We're for the advancement of colored people, and colored people come in all different colors. So we partner with our brothers and sisters whose causes are similar in mission to our own: To wipe out discrimination in any form. I often say I'd like to work myself out of a job, but I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime.
Getting your support must mean a lot to a smaller group.
We're the biggest, the baddest, the oldest, the boldest, the most revered, the most feared, the most discussed, and the most cussed civil rights organization in the world. You can go almost anywhere and say NAACP and somebody will know what that means. M