Hidden History

The Brave and Tragic Trail of Reverend Turner

As the crucible of desegregation enveloped town, a white minister implored his congregation to do the right thing. The violence that followed haunted him until his dying days.

The Brave and Tragic Trail of Reverend Turner

The Reverend Paul Turner trudged up Broad Street. He shoved his ungloved hands in his overcoat pockets and pulled his dark fedora low against the misty mountain morning. Leo Burnett, a supervisor at the local hosiery mill, walked beside him. An African-American woman passed them on her way to work. A photographer for Life followed. The two white men were heading into the black neighborhood of Clinton, Tennessee, to meet white attorney Sidney Davis and a handful of black teenagers. Trailing them were two members of the White Citizens’ Council.

“Preacher,” yelled one, “what business have you got up here?”

“If a lot of these ‘Negro lovers’ would keep their noses out of it,” said the other, “things would be all right.”

(When Turner retold the story for a federal court the following July, he clarified that their real words were “commingled with profanity as well as vulgarity.”)

It was Tuesday December 4, 1956. Desegregation had come to Clinton, Tennessee, and Turner was going to walk twelve students to school.

This was a year before desegregation failed at Little Rock’s Central High, and the governor’s refusal to follow the desegregation plan forced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard. It was two years before Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed its schools and launched a massive resistance to integration. It was four years before little Ruby Bridges walking to school in New Orleans in her white dress inspired Norman Rockwell’s famous painting. Clinton High School was one of several schools around the nation facing court-ordered desegregation. The governor of Texas had sent the Texas Rangers to Mansfield to force its black teenagers to go to school in Fort Worth. Black students in Arkansas and Kentucky were also met by violence and mobs.

Clinton was an unlikely spot for a groundbreaking civil rights struggle. A small town on the edge of Appalachia, only three percent of its residents were black. In 1956, there were fifteen African-American teenagers in Clinton, twelve of whom enrolled in a school with nearly 800 white students. Clinton’s city government agreed to obey the court order, not because they liked it, but for fear of losing the federal money that flowed into Oak Ridge National Nuclear Laboratory seven miles away. Some of their citizens were not so understanding.

Protesters marched through the streets. White students boycotted the school. On the third day of classes, one hundred rioters chased Bobby Cain, a black senior, and beat him with sticks and their segregationist placards. “They wore my back out,” Cain recalls. We’re chatting in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library, but his eyes are focused beyond me, replaying events that happened over fifty years before.

Mobs threatened to bomb the courthouse, the school and the mayor’s house. The governor placed the town under martial law, but unlike Arkansas’s governor, he did not order the National Guard to end desegregation.

The Guard stopped the street protests, but trouble continued within the school. White students threatened the black pupils with knives, ropes and ice picks. During study hall one day, someone threw a snake around one boy’s neck. He assumed it was plastic. Then it started to move. One of the girls was almost pushed out of a second-story window.

In mid-November, protesters again gathered around the school, and dynamiters started targeting black homes and businesses. They also detonated bombs near the properties of white leaders. A white student walked up to Bobby Cain, reached for a knife and said, “I hope you got yours because I’ve got mine.” Cain looks up and shakes his head sadly at that memory.

The African-American students decided to boycott school, placing the school district in contempt of court. It was a gamble. If the court did not find in their favor or if the school leadership locked them out, Clinton High would stay all-white.

Born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Paul Turner and his wife Jane moved to Clinton in 1948 so he could become pastor of First Baptist Church, the largest congregation in town. He was a tall, handsome, fashionable man. His urbanity could have been off-putting to some of his mountain parishioners, but he pitched in where needed. When he dropped by to visit a new church family and learned their sewer pipes were backed up, he rolled up his sleeves and cleared them.

First Baptist boomed under his leadership, almost doubling its membership, and Turner began to assume a role as one of the town’s leading voices, speaking out against juvenile delinquency and moonshining. He was charismatic and controversial, respected and divisive. But when desegregation began, he preached law and order. As he told a journalist for a Southern Baptist publication, he didn’t want “to be seen as a crusader.”

“I just wanted to set things right in the community and to lead our church to do the right thing.”

But although he had been raised to believe in segregation, Turner was bothered by the inequality desegregation had exposed. “There are a few things I see about the total situation now that I didn’t realize in the first place,” he wrote the governor in September, saying that he was particularly worried about “some longstanding inequities as regarding the education of colored children.”

On Labor Day weekend, Turner was visited by Roy DeLamotte, a white Methodist minister and civil rights activist who mocked Turner for not taking a stronger stand in favor of desegregation.

“Surely with the exception of a few lunatics,” DeLamotte wrote afterwards, “no sane Christian is against law and order.” He implored Turner to follow Christ’s example, and fight against “the cancer of race pride.”

“The chance has not slipped away,” he wrote. “If we are called of God at all, if all men ARE brothers, if Christ died for the lowliest members of society, then let us not put the whole church and our own professions ahead of the Kingdom!”

Turner searched for answers. He read the New Testament. He reviewed the writings of Olin Brinkley, a theologian who preached equality. He attended an anti-racist seminar in North Carolina, and he added a Wednesday night Bible study where he hoped he could thrash out these questions with some of his congregation. He also tried to organize Clinton’s pastors, hoping they could make a united stand supporting the black students. The others came to the meetings, but they refused to issue any statements on the situation. Turner realized he was on his own. Then the black students boycotted their school, and he found he could no longer sit idle.

“It’s not hard to know what’s right in your own community,” Turner told Baptist History & Heritage in 1979. “When you know something is right, you do it.”

On Sunday December 2, Turner asked his white congregation to follow the example of the Good Samaritan, who set aside politics to help a wounded Jewish traveler. He asked the people of Clinton to set aside their prejudice, to welcome the black students into Clinton High.

“Our Christian religion is not one of philosophy,” he said that day, “but one of action.”

Turner announced his plans to meet with the black students, to ask them to end their boycott and take their rightful place at their desks, to learn without fear. Leo Burnett was in the crowd, and he asked if he could join Turner. The next morning, they and two others went into the black neighborhood to invite the students to come back to school. The students, rightfully terrified, refused to go. That night, their parents telephoned Turner, asking him to come back on Tuesday morning and try again.

“The kids knew, and we knew, they’d lose if they didn’t go,” Turner said in 1979.

“It was terrible,” says Alfred Williams, one of the black students. “I didn’t want to go to school a lot of times…[but] that’s all the opportunity we had. We had to go down there. We didn’t have any other choice.”

Clinton High teacher Margaret Anderson asked Regina Turner Smith, another of the black students (and no relation to Paul Turner), if desegregation had been worth it. Anderson recalls Smith’s response in her memoir, “The Children of the South.”

“I don’t know,” said Smith, her eyes filling with tears. “I’ve thought about it a lot. The only thing I know is maybe it will be easier for someone else.”

On Tuesday morning, the men and the students started the quarter-mile walk to Clinton High. The Life photographer snapped a picture of the group coming down Broad Street. The students look tense, walking with shoulders raised. Maurice Soles, the youngest and smallest, walks alone at the front. He scowls toward the intersection where the crowd waits for them. Burnett and Davis walk in the street, placing their bodies between the students and anyone who might come at them. Turner is at the back of the group, chanting “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid.”

“I didn’t want to go to Clinton High School in the first place,” one of the African-American women told Margaret Anderson, “but I knew I had a right to be there, and I wasn’t afraid.”

Following them were the White Citizens’ Council members who had been jeering at Turner all day. At the first intersection, a police officer told them to leave the teenagers alone. One of the men, who was a local grocer and part-time preacher, replied that anyone who helped the black students “would have trouble.”

The group neared the school. White students leaned out the school’s windows to yell threats. Turner told the federal court about the students’ hatred. One of them told Turner he “better get ready to escort them…all day long.” A substitute teacher stood in an upstairs classroom and watched the melee below. She told the court that she recognized friends among that “most menacing mob of people,” and could not believe they would utter the “catcalls, jeers and filth” she heard them say.

But inside the school, a knot of white students welcomed the African-Americans and walked them to class. Finished with their task, Davis and Burnett left, but Turner stayed to talk to the principal. After their conversation, he walked alone out of the school door and into the crowd, heading downtown toward First Baptist.

The segregationists surrounded him. Turner passed the chief of police, but the officer did not help him. He paused at the next intersection to ask another policeman for protection. “Frankly, I don’t think he did a very thorough job,” Turner said in his court testimony. He stopped at the police station to ask for an escort. No one was available.

When Turner walked out of the station, Clyde Cook, a machinist at nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a member of the White Citizens’ Council, jumped on his back and punched him in the neck. Turner threw him off and ran across the street. Someone yelled, “Watch out, that man has his hand in his pocket.” Turner looked to see if someone had pulled a knife. The segregationists pushed him against a building.

“He was held up against a plate glass window,” CBS reporter Bob Allison said. “The plate glass window caved in about an inch and a half. It was concave. I was afraid the whole group was going to go through.”

“Nothing much I could do but do what I could,” Turner explained to the federal court. He plowed into Cook. The crowd grabbed Turner.

“This time he went down on his knees,” Allison said. “His head was being bounced against the fender of the car.”

A secretary inside a nearby office heard the commotion. “When I saw the Reverend Turner, his face was completely covered in blood,” she told the local newspaper. She yelled, “‘What are they doing to Brother Turner?’” and ran into the fray. A woman heard her and turned on her, scratching at her face and hitting her about the head.

Eventually, two police officers arrived and broke up the attack. They arrested Cook, but the White Citizens’ Council paid his bond. To thank the police for their hospitality, they gave the officers free Ku Klux Klan stickers. That night, the home of a black business owner was bombed and the Klan rode through the neighborhood.

Burnett felt guilty, and he wondered why he hadn’t been attacked also. Maybe the white supremacists “thought I had a gun on me,” he told a local journalist. They knew “the preacher wouldn’t have carried a weapon.”

The next Sunday Turner returned to his pulpit, still sporting a broken, puffy nose and a black eye. Standing before 650 congregants and with CBS news cameras rolling, Turner insisted he was not a radical, saying, “we’re not against integration, we’re not against segregation, but we are positively against disintegration of our body politic and community.

“There is no color line at the cross of Jesus.”

Death threats came in along with hate mail and harassing phone calls. “I refused to listen to or try to reason with intimidators,” Turner told a Southern Baptist newsletter. “I was made to understand someone was to die in my house.” The church deacons sent them a guard to patrol their yard, and Turner began sleeping with a pistol and a shotgun.

Despite the violence, the black students won the battle for Clinton High. The school did not close, and it remained desegregated until 1958, when it was destroyed by a bomb. Classes met on the school lawn until an abandoned black elementary school could be refitted for high school students. Many in Clinton claim to know who planted the dynamite, but no one was ever arrested. Fifteen segregationists were arrested for the attack on Turner. About half of them were convicted.

Paul Turner remained at First Baptist Church for two more years, muddling through the aftermath without support from his congregation, or from those who had urged him to make his stand. Hoping to attend divinity school, he sought financial support from the Ford Foundation; the Department of Health, Education and Welfare; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Union Theological Seminary. Although the dean of Yale Divinity School praised Turner’s “courage last December,” he couldn’t provide enough funding to support his family. Turner decided to remain in Clinton.

In 1958, Turner took the reins at one of Nashville’s largest Baptist congregations, where he continued to be active in the Civil Rights Movement. According to an online post written by one congregant, he walked two black children to school there, too. In 1967, he studied for his doctorate. He originally planned to write about his experiences in Clinton, using the recollections of the students and the trove of hate mail he received to explore the “poisonous and mentally unhealthy sentiments” of his attackers. His advisors reined him back in, and convinced him to find a less incendiary topic.

After graduation, he became a professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in San Francisco. In 1980 he lost his job — his family says he was a victim of internal politics. On December 18, 1980, the Reverend Paul Turner picked up his handgun, went into the living room of his home north of San Francisco and fatally shot himself. His wife Jane found his body. He was fifty-seven years old.

His family and friends insisted his recent termination wasn’t what caused his death. The root to his depression lay in what happened twenty-four years earlier.

“The Paul Turner in Clinton was a true Christian minister,” a friend wrote in an obituary. But after, “his spirit was broken. The fire that had carried him through Clinton was just a candle glow…Gone was the trust in God to protect him in doing what was right even when it was hard and dangerous.”

“I hurt in the loss of this man,” he concluded. “I hurt for his family. I hurt for all the servants of God who must face their problems and fears alone.”