Monday, May 15, 2017

Activist Dorothy Nell Turner said what she meant and meant what she said; no sass, no popping off

There is an old Southern adage that says: “Just because a chicken got wings don’t mean it can fly”. Dorothy Nell Turner certainly was no chicken, but she could fly off the wings of civility faster than Mary discovered that her little lambs were lost. Turner did not sass talk or pop off. But you better believe that she said what she meant, and meant what she said.

Civil rights activist Dorothy Nell Turner
An Austin, Texas civil rights activist, Turner was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the school board, politicians, city council members, the police department, her place of employment, the local airport, large grocery store chains. If Turner had to go it alone she did not hesitate to declare war on anyone she perceived as an enemy. It did not matter if they were Black, White or “other.”  She was tolerant of people who did not concur with her points of view.

Turner spent a great deal of her time addressing police brutality and discrimination against African American’s disenfranchisement from equal protection of the law. Abuse, harassment, beatings and shooting deaths at the hands of local cops regularly played out in East Austin homes and streets like scripted movies.  

To attract media attention Turner was savoy enough to realize that she needed a strategy, if all of Austin was to learn about the unfair treatment of Black and Brown minorities in Austin.  

She said, “You’ve got to have something real messy. And getting them to come out doesn’t mean they’re going to cover the story. But if you’re hitting it real hard in your press statement, if you throw in a little dirt, attack a politician, you might get a little blurb in the print media, you might do the five seconds on TV. You need to use five forums, city council meetings, have the mayor try to get you arrested, things like that.

“Once it’s out there, it’s like telling a jury to disregard something gin court. How are you going to disregard it once it’s there? Civil disobedience is in order on a lot of things. If you want to get state coverage, or national coverage, go up to the Capital. We had a girl on Phil Donahue twice, just by going up to the Capital. There’s always a way to get the coverage. You just got to be ready to do it”. (The Austin Chronicle) 

Turner was instrumental in creating a community newspaper called The Grassroots Struggle. The paper relayed stories of East Austin's politically marginalized and maligned citizens. The paper was informative, having editorials and the organization’s concerns and goals. Turner was one of the paper's writers. She wrote editorials the same way she spoke, putting her own truth to the power she fought for, and encouraged others to fight for.

The Black Citizens Task Force mobilized protests against police in the early 1980’s when a Black man named Gril Couch entered a popular East Austin restaurant during a busy lunch hour. He had been drinking, and was pestering customers for money. He would not leave when asked by the owner. Before she could call police, two White plainclothes officers happened to come for lunch. They walked in the door, immediately observing Couch. He was standing near the door. An alcoholic, he was belligerent and irritated. No one was giving him money. He approached the two White males, one of his hand outstretched, asking them for money.

Neither cop identified himself as an officer. Diners did not know who they were. Gril Couch thought they were customers. Soon after he approached them an argument started, followed by a struggle. Couch, a familiar face on East 11 and 12 Streets, ended up in front of the restaurant, face down in a chokehold on the summer hot sidewalk. He struggled to break free, but he could not break the cop’s hold. Couch was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. Witnesses thought he had passed out because he had been drinking alcohol.

Some diners that witnessed Couch’s death later concluded that he was murdered by the two White guys in a predominately African American neighborhood. No one knew they were cops until it was reported on the news. The police chief said the choking death was justified.

In 1985 a Nigerian exchange student met his death at the hands of Austin police officers. With Turner out front, the Black Citizens Task Force (BCTF) held press conferences to complain about police brutality, and Black men dying at the hands of White officers. The Nigerian student was suffocated in his water bed by three White cops responding to a domestic disturbance call.  

BCTF held protests in front of the police station every day for 16 months. They protested in the same spot for 18 months after the death of Gril Couch. The protests and meetings with the police chief gave birth to some short lived changes. 

Dorothy Turner’s running mate and buddy was Velma Roberts, also a community activists and president of the Welfare Rights Organization. Turner was imposing woman, standing about 5’6 in flat shoes, weighing about 175 pounds. Roberts weighed around 145 pounds, standing about a little over five feet. Turner’s voice was loud and threatening. Roberts’s voice was softer but her words could be just as stinging as Turner’s.  

At some point during the movement Turner decided to change her fashion style. Shucking her regular mode of dress, Turner commenced wearing African influenced fashions. Because the civil rights duo were together so often they were nicknamed “Batman and Robin.” They joined forces with University of Texas minority students to fight racism and discrimination on campus.  

Turner was the last member to act as president of the Black Citizens Task Force (BCTF), created in 1972 by Dr. John Warfield, Charles Urdy, Tommy Wyatt, Velma Roberts, Larry Jackson and Charles Miles. Turner joined the organization in 1974, becoming its president in 1979. She held onto that position until 2005. BCTF began to lose its power and political influence during the 1990’s. The young people that Turner trained and focused on could not hold the organization together.

A mother of four, grandmother of eight, Turner was born in 1935. Like all African Americans in Austin she was forced to live in the designated “Colored District”. She dropped out of school and got married at 15. Turner’s mother owned and operated a popular bar called the Victory Grill on East 11Street. It was one of the chitlin’ circuit stop-offs for up and coming entertainers who went on to become big names, such as B. B. King and Bobby Blue Bland.

Turner’s upfrontness and hell raising produced changes in her place of employment and the City of Austin. Employed at Brackenridge Hospital, in the food service department, Turner filed two complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after realizing that she and her fellow employees were not earning a fair pay, nor were they getting raises or promotions. 

For her efforts Turner was harassed on the job. She was reprimanded, getting poor performance evaluations. But she was too stubborn and determined to back down and quit. And, too, administrators at the city owned hospital did not want the negative publicity that Turner would not hesitate to part with in a press conference. Eventually her resoluteness paid off. Minority employees that did not agree with Turner benefited from her actions. She worked at Brackenridge Hospital until she retired. Turner earned a promotion from food service to Employee Relations specialist, replete with her own office.

Turner filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Austin and Mueller airport, once again tackling discrimination against minorities and women. As a result of the lawsuit the City hired its first African American personnel director, and first female assistant city manager. Mueller hired a Black female spokesperson, a first for Austin’s only airport.

Turner was dubbed “the Mother of the Movement” by the young people she hoped would follow in
Dorothy Nell Turner,  1935-2005
footsteps. Some of her admirers and followers called her "Mrs. T." Many of them participated BCTF initiated marches and demonstrations. 

Margie Hill of Austin was one of the many mourners who expressed their memories of  Turner in a Guest Book after her death. All of the mourners wrote about how she touched and affected their lives, leaving them with life lessons.

"Dorothy Turner was a fearless warrior. She was one of a kind. She stood all and never backed down on anything she set out to change for the betterment of the people in the community. We will miss you, Dorothy. Austin will never have another that will stand up and do what you have for this community. You made us a proud people. We must never forget the legacy of your works, the struggles you had to endure to make changes for us. We are grateful and thankful, because God made a warrior such as yourself to fight for your fellow kinsmen to have a better life in Austin, Texas. You stood courageously with dignity and pride, because you wanted justice, liberty and freedom for us all."

Older African Americans did not admire or view Turner with the same adoring eyes. However, when they needed her help they did not hesitate to contact her and Velma Roberts. 

An African American millionaire who hobnobbed with other moneyed people—Black and White--did not approve of Turner. One day he was stopped by police and treated like an “ordinary” Black man residing on the East side. This businessman’s office was located in the area, but he lived in an exclusive all White neighborhood.

When he came to the newspaper where I worked he wanted his story told. Other than being a Black millionaire his story of getting stopped and disrespected by a White police officer was no different from the Black man or woman earning minimum wage and living in East Austin. Way beyond angry, the realtor wanted to know how to contact Turner or Roberts. He wanted them to publicly address the humiliation he had suffered, getting stopped for no reason other than driving an expensive car. He did not want to march with Roberts, Turner and other protestors. He merely wanted them to make the police leave him alone, and recognize that he was different. 

In 1998 a proposal presented to the city council to rename Rosewood Avenue to Dorothy Turner Blvd. The proposal evolved into a controversy that not all East Austin residents agreed with. Though the street itself is short, intersecting with Hargrave Street, several businesses and Rosewood Park carried its name. At the council meetings the verbal battling was lively and boisterous. Compliments for Turner were few and far between.  

An outspoken Dorothy Turner supporter named Frank Garrett demanded that council members consent to the proposal. He admonished them if they did not rename Rosewood he would personally print Turner’s name on card boards and tape them over the street’s name.  

One noted businesswoman, Mrs. Nobles, owner of Rosewood BBQ, located between East 11 and Rosewood, argued that the street name was synonymous with her and her husband’s business. She suggested that the City of Austin find a “nice little alley” to name for Turner. Renaming of Rosewood was defeated in 2001, the same year Councilman Danny Thomas proposed renaming Hargrave Street to Velma Roberts Street. The idea was also rejected.

Dorothy Turner, 69, died at her home April 6, 2005 after a long bout cancer. She was funeralized at St. John Tabernacle, April 14.

A 17-foot bronze monument to honor the civil rights work of Volma Overton, Velma Roberts and Dorothy Turner was unveiled and dedicated 2008. It can be seen on the grounds of the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center, located at 7201 Colony Loop Drive.

Inscription on the monument: Volma Overton, Dorothy Turner and Velma Roberts were effective pioneering activists in Austin's civil rights movement in the second half of the 20th Century. Volma Overton led the Austin Chapter of the NAACP for 20 years and initiated the federal lawsuit that desegregated Austin's public schools. 

Dorothy Turner and Velma Roberts founded and led the Black Citizens Task Force, sustaining constant pressure on city government to pay attention to the African American community. They persisted in the struggle for racial equality, equal opportunities and equal justice for all citizens of Austin.

***Also see "Velma Roberts: East Austin civil rights activist and all around hell raiser

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