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Turnipseed, Tom

Picture of Giraffe Turnipseed, Tom

DOING A 180 FOR JUSTICE

Young Tom Turnipseed was the proud grandson of a Ku Klux Klan member. As a young father, Turnipseed named his son Jefferson Davis Turnipseed. As an attorney and politically active southerner, he managed the 1968 presidential campaign of George Wallace, the Alabama governor who was the poster boy for segregation, declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

It was all working for Turnipseed in that time and place, making him a successful public figure with a thriving law practice and a seat in the South Carolina Senate. He recalls believing that black people were “congenial" yet definitely inferior. Then he did a 180.

THE TURNING POINT

“You know how as a kid, you’re taught things? Well, I was racist. I didn’t think I was, but I was. A friend of mine, who was the attorney general of Alabama, he kind of turned against Wallace, and I said, ‘How come you’re jumping on my boss like that?’ And he said, ‘Tom, sometimes you might want to think. Are you a Christian?’ And I said, ‘I try to be.’ ‘Well, Jesus said, ‘Do unto others . . .’ And stuff like that just sunk in.”

WORKING FOR CIVIL RIGHTS

He started taking civil rights cases, including one in which his co-counsel was a black attorney. He and the black attorney couldn’t meet in public places to discuss the case – all public venues were segregated. The black attorney even had to travel to the courthouse in the trunk of a car to avoid being attacked. Turnipseed was shaken by that reality.

LOSING ELECTIONS

He ran for US Congress, hoping to help move the cause of civil rights forward. He was defeated largely because Republican strategist Lee Atwater successful publicized Turnipseed’s former bouts with depression, as well as his affiliation with the NAACP (Atwater later asked Turnipseed for forgiveness). Turnipseed also lost an election to be South Carolina’s Attorney General.

Being a white liberal in that time and place wasn't easy, and Turnipseed’s wife, Judy, remembers those times when her husband was running for office as “really, really hard.” “Tom never ran just to be elected,” she says. “He ran so he could get his ideas out.”

DECADES OF HARASSMENT

Those ideas caused angry southerners to send him hate mail and threats, to demonstrate in front of his office and paste KKK stickers on his office windows, to shove and jostle him at public gatherings, calling him a traitor to the white race. (Turnipseed still gets hate mail on a regular basis. He often tries to engage the senders in a dialogue on the issue.)

WINNING AGAINST THE KLAN

Turnipseed didn’t let the defeats or the harassment hamper his activism. He led the Center for Democratic Renewal, formerly known as the National Anti-Klan Network. And after the Klan burned a black church, he helped the church win a $37 million jury verdict against the Klan.

A VOICE AGAINST RACISM AND FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

Turnipseed also sits on the board of the South Carolina Hispanic Leadership Council and is the founding chairman of the Citizens’ Local Environmental Action Network, a statewide clearing house helping citizens’ groups fight toxic waste dumps. And he's continually written and given talks about many public issues, as well as hosting TV and radio shows that discuss public affairs.

All this work, of course, is anathema to his former allies in the world of "segregation forever.”