Jack Turnerism: Alabama’s Black Political Uprising

Written by Reporting Live From the Kremlin

We must say it all, and as clearly
Trying to bury us.
As we can. For, even before we are dead,

As I stood on the lawn of the Choctaw County Courthouse, I was taken aback by the pristine beauty of the corn-yellow brick structure surrounded on all sides by Sweet Gum and Sugar Maple trees of similar hue. Circling the building, I had one goal — to locate the oak where Jack Turner was lynched.

Of course the grand building before me, draped in the crimson and clover decor of the season, was not the backdrop to Turner’s hanging in 1882. This structure was the second built on this site; the first courthouse suffered the same suspicious fate as many other crimes scenes; it burned to the ground.

In the northeast corner of the courthouse square, I find a stone marker dedicated to the Ruffin Dragons Calvary — Confederate soldiers of Choctaw County. Beside it, facing the main street, stands a confederate soldier crafted in white stone, a monument to the stiff-necked hubris of the deep-South. I imagine the stone idol of Confederate treason whispers “We were warriors” to people intent on believing in their own innocence despite all the evidence to the contrary.

But, most of all, did we write exactly what we saw,
As clearly as we could? Were we unsophisticated
Enough to cry and scream?

Finally, on the northwest corner of the lawn, I locate an oak tree. Unfortunately it’s young, certainly not 200 years old. Standing beneath its foliage, I consider the placement of the confederate monuments. Were they erected where Jack Turner was hanged? The Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that funded the statues, would know. They would’ve heard about the Negro uprising in Choctaw County, where Black residents concocted a scheme to murder all the White inhabitants. As they sat learning about the Lost Cause, their elders would’ve gladly divulged the very spot where Jack made his last dying request — to see his wife Chloe.

Well, then, they will fill our eyes,
Our ears, our noses and our mouths
With the mud
Of oblivion.

Researching Jack’s life, I found several such narratives on genealogy sites. Some accounts claim both Black and White people showed up to hang Jack, that he was a nuisance to the town, frequently arrested, and a danger to all he met. One retelling says as many 400 Negroes were involved in the plot to slaughter every White resident in Butler, AL. The only thing that saved them was the discovery of a bundle of letters written by Jack and co-conspirators detailing the meetings and delineating the horrors soon to transpire. Luckily, I discovered more objective sources.

Jack Turner was born around 1840, and was, by law, the property of Beloved Love (B.L.)Turner, one of the wealthiest residents of Mount Sterling, AL. Several sources claim B.L. and Jack had a friendly relationship strengthened by the antagonism of both men by townspeople. Jack — tall, powerfully built, handsome, well-spoken and recently emancipated — was a threat to the social order of Mt. Sterling. B.L. was hated for his wealth and acute business acumen. A former Democrat, B.L. switched to the Republican party around 1867. By 1874 Jack Turner had become a powerful political organizer, illiterate but an excellent orator, capable of rallying droves of Black people in support of the Republican party.

We are not different from them,
Neither above nor below,
Outside nor inside.
We are the same.
And we do not worship them.

As Jack’s influence grew, so did the animus toward him and his former holder. With the help of B.L., Jack procured 80 acres of land and became a respected businessman as well as a prominent leader in Blackbelt politics. When plantation owners attempted to stifle former slaves’ political engagement, going so far as to forbid Black support of Republican candidates, Jack encouraged those former slaves to bring charges against employers. With Jack’s support, a few Black voters managed to secure indictments against White land owners. With Jack and many others working to mobilize Black voters, the Blackbelt became the stronghold of the Republican party. Consequently, Turner became an easy target for law enforcement. As Jack’s power and influence in politics grew, so did his criminal record. He was arrested frequently, for the smallest infractions. Jack, never to be discouraged, simply took loans against his crop to pay court fees. Among Jack’s many charges were adultery and using foul language in the presence of females. While B.L. stepped in to assist with the fines, Jack kept his poll tax current.

In 1882 Jack Turner, Chairman of the Republican County Executive Committee, orchestrated a political upset that would prove fatal. A Greenback- Republican fusion ticket gubernatorial candidate beat the Democratic opponent in Choctaw County with the help of Jack and the Black constituency. Although the Democratic candidate won the state election, the defeat of Choctaw Democrats at the hand of newly enfranchised Black voters was a humiliating upset for the White residents of Mount Sterling. Following the election, someone stumbled upon a roll of papers that revealed a conspiracy, years in the making, to massacre the White townspeople. The papers claimed Jack was the leader, even though Jack was illiterate, barely capable of signing his own name. Within 48 hours, Jack was taken to the county seat in Butler, AL and hanged from an oak tree on the lawn of the courthouse.

Several Black Republicans, friends of Jack, were arrested as well. They were tortured and imprisoned. Years passed. Their trials were moved 30 miles north to Sumter County, where I currently reside. A lack of evidence and a general loss of interest in the case caused the charges to be dismissed, but residents of Choctaw, eager to defend their actions, became increasingly paranoid of the same Black residents who had lived peacefully among them pre and post Civil War. The county passed ordinances prohibiting Black residents from meeting for any reason. Rumors of other “semi-military organizations” began to spread. Other Alabama counties, eager to dissuade Black voters from political engagement, began to adopt the attitude of White Choctaw County residents. Soon, White Alabamians labeled all Black political organizing as “Jack Turnerism.”

I look into your eyes;
You are throwing in the dirt.
You, standing in the grave
With me. Stop it!

Several Black newspapers condemned Jack’s lynching as mob violence while some Northern papers took a different approach. One Northern newspaper reported “It only requires a few hangings and whippings to make the nigger keep his place” while another proclaimed “Jack Turner was obnoxious on account of his meddling with politics”. Regardless of reactions to the event, Jack Turnerism became a state-wide political phenomenon. Each time Black voters gathered for political engagement, they were accused of Jack Turnerism, thwarting any chance at pro-Black political representation in Alabama.

Jack was interned at St. John Methodist Church in Mt. Sterling, AL. According to witnesses, Jack’s wife Chloe could not afford a stone monument and settled instead for planting a water oak at his grave. After observing the scattered headstones on the front lawn of the historic church, I scanned the perimeter for water oaks. There were several: ancient, tall, majestic, roots sprawling in all directions. Immediately following Jack’s death one paper reported, “The blood of Jack Turner cries from the ground and in his grave he will be a greater power against…the south than he ever could have become if left alive and unmolested.” Another stated “By the act of naming the political uprising ‘Jack Turnerism’” Jack’s opponents “paid unintended tribute to a man of courage”.

There is a conspiracy of silence among Black elders, those who survived Jim Crow, peonage, share cropping, convict leasing. They can recall a few Jack Turners, neighbors or relatives, whose lives were crushed because they demanded “too much too soon”. Their silence ensured their survival, but today is a new day. Standing where Jack once stood, I am encouraged to give voice to his life’s work — advocacy for political and economic power of Black Americans. In Jack’s honor , let us “dig up” the life stories of our ancestors, stand in their shoes, and demand that America pay the debt to Black American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS). May we all commit ourselves to Jack Turnerism.

Each one, pull one back into the sun

We who have stood over
So many graves
Know that no matter what they do
All of us must live
Or none.

 

Notes:

Hahn, Steven. A Nation under Our Feet Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge Harvard University Press, 2005.

“The Choctaw County Courthouse.” Rootsweb.Com, 2019, sites.rootsweb.com/~alccgs/history/courthouse.html. Accessed 1 Nov. 2019.

Turner, Jack. “Narrative about Jack Turner, Freedman of Choctaw County, during Reconstruction. :: WPA Alabama Writers’ Project.” Alabama.Gov, 2019, digital.archives.alabama.gov/cdm/ref/collection/wpa/id/820. Accessed 2 Nov. 2019.

Walker, Alice. EACH ONE, PULL ONE http://www.ctadams.com/alicewalker1.html

William C. Harris, August Reckoning: Jack Turner and Racism in Post-Civil War Alabama. By William Warren Rogers and Robert David Ward. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973

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