VOL. 42 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 13, 2018
Turner's civil rights cold case bill inches closer to passage
By Sam Stockard
Years of work behind her, state Rep. Johnnie Turner is making the final push for creation of a state body designed to initiate investigations into civil rights cold cases, potentially solving decades-old murders or giving people the opportunity to put a heinous act behind them.
“This has been some journey. I never anticipated this,” says Turner, a Memphis Democrat who hopes her legislation comes to fruition during the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King and her final year in the General Assembly.
One measure in the initiative would enable lawmakers to open TBI records for investigations into civil rights cold cases when the General Assembly is out of session. Lawmakers would appoint a person to lead the inspection of records, which would be limited to unsolved civil rights crimes that took place between 1940 and 1969, and those records are expected to remain confidential.
The key part of Turner’s legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Majority Leader Mark Norris, would set up the Tennessee Civil Rights Crimes Information, Reconciliation and Research Center within the Office of Minority Affairs and attach it to the Secretary of State’s Office. It would serve as a repository for information on civil rights crimes and reconciliation efforts, working with volunteers statewide to conduct a statewide survey and tap state law schools, colleges and universities, as well as groups such as Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition, to delve into unsolved civil rights crimes.
The measure passed Tuesday on an 85-0 vote in the House, with Turner explaining the Office of Minority Affairs would expand when necessary.
“This is the beginning of something much bigger than any of us,” Turner says.
She hopes the center reaches the point it can help solve crimes and bring reconciliation to people affected by terrible events, including the family members of the victims and the perpetrators. But it is unclear when the two bills will be considered by the House and Senate, with only a week left in the 2018 session.
The legislative effort is timely, as well, meshing with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King and the recent dedication of the Civil Rights Trail in Tennessee. In addition, it connects with the Emmett Till Unsolved Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016 and puts Tennessee at the forefront of civil rights cold case activism.
For Turner, the legislation takes on personal significance, too.
The Memphis Democrat says she could have been the victim of a civil rights crime as a young student at LeMoyne-Owen College in the early 1960s when she rode the bus home each evening after studying in the school library. Men on the bus spat on her, jerked her arm and called her “everything but a child of God,” she says, because she refused to sit at the back of the bus.
The bus driver showed her the most cruelty, she says, often lurching the bus forward and trying to catch her coat in the door as she got off and sometimes dropping her off in a white neighborhood, which forced her to walk several blocks home by herself in an unfriendly area.
“I could see on their faces that they couldn’t break me,” she says, but she refused to lash out or respond.
She escaped serious injury, yet the experience was so traumatic Turner repressed it for years, never telling anyone until a black writers’ group drew it out of her. She went on to participate in Memphis sit-ins and wound up being arrested, which made it difficult for her to get a job teaching for Memphis City Schools.
In recent years, though, Turner has spoken several times about what happened to her during the 1960s, especially while trying to push the civil rights cold case legislation and during this year’s MLK remembrances. Rep. G.A. Hardaway, also a Memphis Democrat, carried the mantle for many years before handing it off to Turner, who finally pushed through a measure in 2017 setting up a committee that spurred this year’s bills.
Bringing a new outlook
Norris, a Collierville Republican, has gone through a life-changing experience in working on the legislation, especially while seeing the reconciliation of families connected with the lynching of black sharecropper Joe Boxley in 1929 for allegedly assaulting a white woman whose husband owned the farm where he worked.
Turner and Norris attended a memorial to the event in Alamo last summer at the Crockett County Courthouse where they heard the granddaughter of the man on whose farm Boxley was hanged speak about the event. Anna Laura James, the Crockett County historian, 102 years of age, recounted how she saw the wagon coming from her front porch and saw the lynching, which was carried out by hundreds of people. The death was widely reported at the time but faded into pages of history over the decades.
“As far as we could discern, she never had given this testimony before. But it had burdened her all of her life, what she witnessed,” Norris says.
During the ceremony, an African-American woman of the same age, Crockett County resident Marion Watkins, also stood and gave her point of view, as many of Boxley’s family, many of them from Connecticut, gathered in the old Southern courtroom. Neither of the women were part of the memorial’s program but were moved to stand and speak about their experiences.
“To witness this process and the reconciliation that was part of it was remarkable. That’s something I’d never seen,” says Norris, a nominee for a U.S. District Court judgeship.
As part of the event, Norris and Turner scooped dirt taken from the location of the tree where Boxley was hanged and put it in an urn taken to a permanent display of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.
Turner believes events such as the Boxley lynching memorial give the survivors of victims as well as those who might have participated in the crime a “new lease on life.”
“It brings closure to both families. It’s like a revival or something,” she says, adding the Boxley memorial was “so powerful you just left feeling something wonderful just happened.”
Norris, meanwhile, sees shifting attitudes in the Legislature, which is critical to passage of the cold case legislation. The Senate Majority leader says “different perceptions” of racism exist, and in some cases people might say they’re “tired of hearing about it” because the term can be tossed around “indiscriminately.”
“But there are realities of racism that you see through a different prism when you’re focusing more on the research and reconciliation than the retribution,” Norris says.
The legislation he and Turner are sponsoring should enable people to move past defending themselves against accusations of racism and toward a new outlook focused on coming to terms with history.
In fact, Norris and Turner agree reconciliation can be as important as solving crimes, many of which took place so long ago, witnesses are no longer available to testify.
Scooping soil from the base of the tree where Joe Boxley was hanged as hundreds of people watched 90 years ago was a “symbolic gesture,” Norris adds. “But it connects you in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.”
Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, says the civil rights cold case legislation could be the most important work the General Assembly takes up this year, especially in honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King.
Says Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, “We can’t go back and make everyone whole again, but the descendants and, to some extent, those who are immediate family will know that we did circle back and we did try to bring as much justice (as possible), and hopefully through that process of pursuing justice we attain reconciliation. That reconciliation is just as important as anything else that comes out of this process.”
Sam Stockard is Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.