Former U.S. Justice Department Attorney and MU J-school Alum Jim Turner Returns to Mizzou & Jefferson City to Tell How He Prosecuted the KKK for Murder

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland--African Americans who died tragically--became nationally-known figures in the recent struggles over racial violence. Ku Klux Klan marches and white nationalist rallies have experienced a resurgence. A notable riotous, deadly rally occurred in Charlottesville, VA last August.

A half century before that, in 1965 three KKK members were prosecuted and convicted for murder, a first in the Jim Crow American South. As a young civil rights attorney working for the U.S. Justice Department, Jim Turner was in Alabama, helping to prosecute the Klan in a federal case after the state of Alabama had been unable to convict the Klansmen. In a new book, Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials published in January by the University of Michigan press, Turner details the story of those convictions in another era of racial tumult.

Turner will visit the University of Missouri, his alma mater, and Lincoln University to make three presentations, March 6 through March 8: On Tuesday, March 6, at 1 p.m., at the MU Law School in Room 5 of Hulston Hall. On Wednesday, at 6:30 p.m., at MU Journalism School and the Reynolds Journalism Institute in the Fred Smith Forum, Room 200.  Additionally, at Lincoln’s Page Library, he will speak in Jefferson City on Thursday, March 8 at 1 p.m. The talks are free and open to the public.

Turner, who received his Mizzou bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism in 1952, authored Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials to tell the story of the first modern civil rights convictions. His book weaves newspaper articles, speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Turner’s insider view of the end of Klan terror. The trial of three Klansman described in Turner’s book takes place as a result of a gruesome car chase and the murder of the only white woman killed during the civil rights movement, Viola Liuzzo. She was a Unitarian Universalist church member who came from her home in Detroit to join with others in the Selma to Montgomery March.

“In an age when the KKK and Civil Rights protests make daily news, it is important to look back to another time. This can enrich our understanding of why the Selma prosecution matters today, why voting rights matters, why racial understanding matters,” said Berkley Hudson, who is organizing the series of events. He is a journalism professor and chair of the Faculty Council’s Diversity Enhancement Committee, one of the co-sponsors of Turner’s visit. Other sponsors include the MU Honors College, MU Law School, MU Journalism School, and Lincoln University.

After brutal state police beatings stunned the nation on “Bloody Sunday” on March 7 in Selma, two weeks later troops under federal court order lined the route as the march again made its way 54 miles to the State Capitol in Montgomery.  In his continuing push for voting rights for African Americans, King made a triumphant speech in Montgomery on March 25.

Then, hours later, KKK terror struck and claimed the life of one of the marchers, Viola Liuzzo, the mother of five children. She had been pursued by another vehicle containing three Klansmen - and a fourth FBI informant masquerading as a Klansmen - after they noticed that she was driving back toward Selma with African American passengers. She had dropped off all but one of them, Leroy Moton. He later described the chase and gunfire that resulted in Liuzzo’s death and crash which he miraculously escaped without injury.

Turner had a firsthand view of the three trials that unfolded over the following nine months after the death of Liuzzo. Despite eyewitness testimony by the FBI informant riding in the car with the killers, two all-white, state juries refused to convict. It took a team of U.S. Civil Rights Division lawyers from the Justice Department, led by the legendary prosecutor John Doar, to produce the landmark jury verdict confirming that Klansmen were no longer above the law.

Another case wasn’t as successful. Turner tried to prosecute the “Bloody Sunday” Alabama Highway Patrol but was blocked by a grand jury’s vote to not indict.

He served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General, the senior career lawyer in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, for 25 years. During this time, he worked with Lincoln University’s interim President Mike Middleton - former interim president of the UM System and Deputy Chancellor Emeritus of Mizzou- who then was a young Justice Department lawyer.

Deval Patrick, former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and the former Governor of Massachusetts, has praised Turner’s book, saying: “Fifty years ago, American justice triumphed over the Alabama Klan—thanks to the fearless work of the Civil Rights Division. Jim Turner’s moving account reminds us that we can overcome the darkest attacks on human freedom, a lesson well worth remembering today as we confront new challenges to our basic civil rights.”   

Turner served in the Civil Rights Division for 17 straight attorneys general in nine national administrations – Eisenhower to Clinton. He was responsible for enforcing federal laws in Mississippi and Alabama in the mid-1960s, during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Notably, in the 1970s, he prosecuted Donald Trump for racial discrimination at Trump housing developments; the case was ultimately settled out of court.

A first-generation college student, Turner graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in 1952 with an emphasis in radio journalism. The day after graduation, he was commissioned as a Marine lieutenant, serving in Japan and Korea. He then entered University of Colorado law school, graduating in 1957. His was hired as a Justice Department lawyers in Washington where he worked until 1961 before entering private practice in Denver. He then returned in 1965 to the Justice Department and remained there until retirement in 1994. 

During his tenure, he worked with William Rehnquist before Rehnquist became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. When the two were in the Justice Department, they made speeches together in the 1960s. During his career, Turner made four oral arguments before the Supreme Court.

Turner played leadership roles in the Civil Rights Division’s activities ranging from the Kent State Grand Jury proceedings and the Rodney King police misconduct trial to voting rights cases and reparations for Japanese-American internees.

He was nominated by Democrat Jimmy Carter for a Presidential Distinguished Service Award that was later presented by Republican Ronald Reagan.


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