08 Oct 2013
- Written by Carlee McCullough
ON OUR WAY TO WEALTHY: I recently had an opportunity to see "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and it was moving. One of the things that impacted me was observing how various moments in history could be seen and experienced from so many different perspectives.
I also realized that I did not have to go see Daniel's fine work to hear actual stories about the civil rights experience.
Influencers of the civil rights movement abound in Memphis. Among them is Tri-State Bank President Jesse H. Turner Jr., whose experience frequently gets overlooked by documenters of Memphis history. He was the first to integrate a high school in the city of Memphis, breaking the barrier at Christian Brothers High School (CBHS) in 1963.
At the time, CBHS was off of the radar screen. Not only was it not public, it was Catholic and all boys at the time. Set on the campus of Christian Brothers College, CBHS was governed by the Catholic Diocese and not subject to the intense scrutiny of public schools.
There were other Catholic schools, such as Father Bertrand, that were reserved for African Americans, but Turner's parents decided to apply for admission to CBHS after his late father – Jesse H. Turner Sr., the longtime treasurer of the NAACP and former president of Tri-State Bank – had seen a flyer for the school. Active in her own right, Turner's mother, Allegra Turner, was a prominent civic, civil rights and social activist as well as an author.
Brother Terence McLaughlin, then-president of Christian Brothers University, made the executive decision to admit young Turner. McLaughlin, a rather progressive transplant to the Memphis area, transferred to the Bluff City from Chicago. His ideas and perspective on what was right and wrong differed greatly from much of the local leadership.
McLaughlin's decision to go against Bishop William Adrian took wisdom and guts. The Diocese had made the decision in the fall of 1963 to admit African-American children to Catholic schools in grades first through fourth, but McLaughlin was addressing high school.
The backdrop was a truly segregated Memphis.
"Unless you lived through some of this, it is kind of hard to imagine it today," Turner said in a recent interview with The New Tri-State Defender.
"African Americans could only go to the zoo or fair grounds one day a week. Blacks had to sit in the balcony at movie theaters. Medgar Evans was assassinated in June of 1963. The four little girls had been bombed in Birmingham. But due to the "sit inners" and the NAACP, wherever you looked there were cracks in the wall."
As Turner recalled, the integration of Christian Brothers was "very peaceful" compared to all that was going on in the city and nationally.
"A good bit of that had to do with the school's willingness to accept me," said Turner.
"After the authorities asked Brother Terrance to reverse the decision, my father threatened to sue since we had a contract that indicated they accepted us willingly. So the diocese reversed itself and decided to let me in. I was going to a school where the top person, Brother Terrance, accepted my coming, which was far different than other institutions that did not accept the integration. So other people fell in line."
Most students left Turner alone, however, a few chose to throw punches. Instructed by his father to defend himself, he punched back and the incoming punches soon stopped.
For Turner and others who traveled the rough road of integration, it took determination, will power, nerves of steel and fortitude.
I was honored to have the conversation with Turner, gaining a heightened respect for those that personally lived through the events detailed in "Lee Daniels' The Butler." I also came away with a fresh appreciation for the entrepreneurial foundation that is rooted in living legends with a wealth of knowledge.