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VOL. 132 | NO. 60 | Friday, March 24, 2017

Turner Seeks Study of Civil Rights Cold Cases

By Sam Stockard

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State Rep. Johnnie Turner can still feel the physical and emotional pain she endured for riding at the front of Memphis city buses while going home from LeMoyne-Owen College during the civil rights movement.

It was 1960, and buses had been desegregated, but while many other black Memphis residents who worked Downtown continued to ride at the back of the bus, she sat behind the driver because she felt she was “a child of God” and had the right as a U.S. citizen to take that seat.


Many times, though, she was the only black rider remaining on the bus with a group of white men and the driver, which put her in a precarious situation. When the driver was in a bad mood, she said, he would try to catch her coat in the door, and sometimes he would drop her off in white neighborhoods, forcing her to walk home late at night in an unwelcome situation.

“I have been cursed, I was spat on and on two occasions, once by a drunk. My arm was almost pulled out of the socket, and I never said a word because I knew that if I said one thing, if I made one move, I would be an unsolved murder case,” Turner told the House State Government Committee Wednesday, March 22.

With her teenage experience in mind, Turner is sponsoring legislation to create a special joint committee to study issues relating to the investigation and prosecution of unsolved civil rights crimes and cold cases from the civil rights era. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris is sponsoring the Senate version of the legislation.

Turner pointed out the matter is timely because of revelations earlier this year involving the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teen who was brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman while visiting Mississippi. The case became a symbol of racial hatred and inequality in the segregated South.

The Memphis Democrat whose early life parallels the 1960s civil rights movement said the woman at the center of the case, Carolyn Bryant Donham, “confessed that none of that was true, that he never whistled at her.”

The woman who accused him of flirting with her reportedly admitted she gave false testimony during the trial against her husband and his half-brother, who were acquitted in the Till murder. They later told a magazine writer they had killed the youngster.

A January article by the Associated Press quoted historian Timothy B. Tyson, author of “The Blood of Emmett Till,” as saying Carolyn Bryant Donham told him, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

Bryant had testified outside the presence of the jury that Till grabbed her and bragged profanely about his experiences with white women, according to news reports. Another woman at the center of the case, Juanita Milam, later reportedly told the FBI she felt Bryant made up the story.

Said Turner during Wednesday’s committee meeting, “There are a lot of cases out there of unsolved civil rights murders, and the timeliness of this bill, it is extremely urgent that we do something now before it becomes too late.”

The committee approved the legislation.

Rep. Bill Sanderson, a Kenton Republican who chairs the committee, told Turner, “I’m sure glad you’re not a statistic, because you’re a joy.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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