Albert Turner Sr. Civil rights activist Albert Turner Sr. (1936-2000) served as the Alabama field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1965 to 1972. He helped organize voting registration drives and other civil rights activities, including the March 7, 1965, Selma to Montgomery march later known as “Bloody Sunday.” For his leadership, Black activists often referred to Turner as Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “point man” in the Black Belt region. He remained an active voice promoting racial and civil equality in Perry County until his death at 64.
Born on February 29, 1936, in Marion, Perry County, Albert Turner was one of 12 children of landowning farmers Emerson and Lottie Turner. According to Turner, after emancipation, his ancestors were never sharecroppers or tenant farmers but were instead independent business and property owners. Several generations of Turners had owned land in Perry County and had acquired a higher level of education than many of their peers. Emerson Turner had been a vocal community advocate for racial equality and began the first public school busing system in Perry County, helping rural Black students access the all-Black Lincoln School in Marion.
Phillips Memorial Auditorium In 1952, Turner graduated with honors from the Lincoln School, serving as class president. A gifted student and leader, Turner enrolled at Alabama A&M University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree with a double concentration in history and mechanical arts and pledged to the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. In college, Turner participated in several Huntsville-area student-led civil rights demonstrations. All his siblings also graduated from college. Afterwards, Turner worked as a bricklayer rather than become a teacher to avoid racial injustice. On December 9, 1957, he married Evelyn Hatch of Marion; the couple would have three sons and a daughter. Together, Albert and Evelyn became active leaders in Perry County’s growing civil rights protests.
Having returned to Perry County, Turner tried to register to vote in 1962. At the time, fewer than one percent of the county’s Black residents appeared on its voter registration lists. Like many southern counties, prospective Black voters in Perry County had to be vouched for by three registered white voters. They also had to pass a series of random examinations that were designed by state and local officials to prevent Black voter registrations. After the white registrar told the college-educated Turner that he lacked the education to become a registered voter, though less-educated whites could vote, the infuriated Turner organized local grassroots voting rights movements. Additionally, members of the Turner family had been enfranchised since Reconstruction. With Evelyn’s assistance, Turner transformed the isolated Sportsman Club, a Black-owned juke joint in Perry County, into a covert meeting place to coordinate civil rights protests.
In 1963, the Turners and fellow activist Spencer Hogue founded the Perry County Civic League (PCCL). Modeled after the neighboring Dallas County Voters League, which had formed in the 1930s, the PCCL organized Black protests and boycotts in Marion calling for the racial integration of public facilities and schools and for voting rights. The PCCL also established programs for poor, elderly, and disabled Blacks who lacked access to Perry County’s social service programs because of racial discrimination. Turner also led adult education classes for illiterate Blacks, while PCCL members also assisted Black farmers and businessmen apply for federal loans and program assistance.
In 1963, after filing a series of federal lawsuits, Turner’s activism led to the successful registration of 150 Black voters in Perry County. Turner’s grassroots activism and organizational skills attracted the attention of national civil rights organizations and helped convince those groups that a successful voting rights campaign could be organized in the Alabama Black Belt. Turner and PCCL grassroots civil rights activism greatly benefited subsequent voting rights campaigns by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and SCLC Black Belt. Turner joined SNCC at several protests in Selma and traveled door to door encouraging Blacks to register to vote. In addition, he was a frequent speaker in churches across the Black Belt region, where his local roots and plain style of speaking helped draw numerous Black residents into the voting rights movement. In the fall of 1964, Turner’s successful mobilization efforts influenced SCLC’s decision to join the existing Black Belt movement.
James Orange After a Perry County sheriff arrested SCLC field secretary James Orange on February 18, 1965, to impede voter registration efforts, rumors spread that a lynch mob intended to murder Orange. Turner then organized a night march from Zion Methodist Church to the jail to deter the vigilantes but were instead attacked by state troopers and local police. During the assault, a state trooper shot and killed 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson at Mack’s Café as he tried to protect his mother and grandparents from the officer’s attacks. Jackson died eight days later.
Turner then played a vital role in the Selma to Montgomery march to protest Jackson’s murder and present a petition to Gov. George C. Wallace demanding voting rights. On the morning of March 7, 1965, Turner, PCCL members, and hundreds of Black Perry County residents traveled to Selma in a large caravan of vehicles that stretched along U.S. Highway 80 for nearly ten miles. Emotions ran high among the Perry County delegation, whose members saw the march as a personal means of avenging Jackson’s murder. When SCLC and SNCC leaders considered canceling the march, the Perry County delegation threatened to continue the march under Turner’s leadership, with or without those organizations. Turner told SCLC and SNCC leaders that canceling the march would destroy the voting rights campaign’s legitimacy in the eyes of Black residents and volunteered to lead the march. His steadfast attitude and PCCL threats prompted the SCLC to move forward with the march.
Bloody Sunday Crossing After leading approximately 650 marchers through downtown Selma and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Turner stood in the second row of protestors when Alabama State Troopers attacked the peaceful and unarmed demonstrators. After the initial thrust by troopers had struck down several protestors, Turner rallied more than 100 demonstrators at a location closer to the bridge. Under his leadership, those foot soldiers knelt and prayed and prepared themselves for an expected and subsequent gas attack by the troopers. Film footage of the mayhem at the foot of the bridge under Turner’s command was broadcast nationally and helped draw broader support for voting rights legislation. After Bloody Sunday, Turner remained in Selma, where he participated in the aborted second march, known as Turnaround Tuesday, and the final march to Montgomery, which began March 21. The SCLC then appointed Turner field secretary for Alabama in recognition for his leadership and dedication to the civil rights movement. (Turner would later help found the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.)
As SCLC field secretary for Alabama, Turner faced the daunting task of registering Black voters following passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that August. Although that federal law guaranteed the right to vote for all citizens regardless of their race, many white Alabamians persisted with their massive resistance strategies. Turner traveled across the state aiding registration drives despite the constant threat to his safety. On several occasions, Turner led local voting rights protests that were met with police and vigilante violence, but his determination to register all the state’s eligible Black voters never wavered. By the late 1960s, several hundred thousand eligible Black voters had been registered thanks to his continued activism.
Turner also worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., who became a regular guest at the Turner home in Marion. Turner was among those civil rights leaders who urged King to launch the Poor People’s Campaign to address the many economic injustices resulting from systemic racism that had negatively impacted Black Americans and their communities. One of King’s final public addresses took place in Marion, where Turner had invited the civil rights leader to speak about his strategy to combat generational poverty. Weeks after the speech, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. At King’s funeral in Atlanta, Turner drove the mule-drawn wagon that carried King’s body to its final resting place in the city.
Albert Turner Sr. and Gasohol Distillery Turner remained committed to promoting social, economic, and political opportunities for all. He led the Southwest Alabama Farmer’s Cooperative Association (SAFCA) that improved Black farmer access to government loans and programs that had been widely available to white farmers for decades. In addition, Turner sought to organize Black farmers into a single powerful coalition of purchasers to lower the cost of machinery, transportation, seed, and fertilizer for minority farm operators. During the late 1970s, as America confronted an energy crisis, Turner and the SAFCA advocated for the expanded use of gasohol, a blend of petroleum and ethanol, as a means for breaking the nation’s dependence on foreign oil imports. A self-taught chemist, Turner worked with scientists at Purdue University to improve gasohol’s efficiency and lower production costs. In 1979, Turner testified before Congress, championing gasohol’s potential uses. In Alabama, where Turner remained a state leader in the SCLC, he sold gasohol to gas stations and consumers and led a group of white and Black investors promoting gasohol’s use statewide and urging local communities to open gasohol refineries. Turner encouraged Black business owners to endorse, manufacture, and distribute gasohol as an avenue for combating systemic poverty in minority communities.
The Marion Three In 1985, Turner became embroiled in a voting rights scandal when he and Evelyn and Spencer Hogue were indicted by U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions. He accused the three, later known as the Marion Three, of 29 counts of mail fraud and illegally tampering with paper absentee ballots in the September 1984 Perry County Democratic primary. U.S. attorneys also indicted several other Black civil rights leaders across Alabama on similar charges. Turner claimed that the indictments were politically motivated and designed to suppress Black voter participation. The Marion Three, defended by Selma attorney and civil rights activist J. L. Chestnut Jr., insisted that they were only helping illiterate and under-educated voters complete their paper ballots. Sessions alleged that they had filled out and cast paper ballots for Black voters who had died before the primary. Following an emotional three-week trial in Selma, a jury of seven Black and five white members deliberated for fewer than three hours before acquitting the Marion Three of all charges. In Alabama, the Marion Three’s acquittal significantly impaired the remaining white massive resistance efforts to undermine the application of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and helped pave the way for a new wave of Black elected state and local officials.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Turner earned a reputation for helping Black politicians get elected while failing to win his own election bids. Finally, in 1988, after seven attempts, Turner won a heated contest to become a member of the Perry County Commission. During Turner’s four terms as commissioner, he championed education and public health initiatives and promoted economic development for poor and working-class residents. On April 13, 2000, Turner died unexpectedly while in a hospital preparing for a routine medical procedure. He was buried in Turner Cemetery in Perry County. Albert Turner Senior Elementary School in Perry County was named in his honor.