Future historians of our city will no doubt ponder how it is that we let things get so far out of hand. Should these scribes ever come to be, it will be because somehow we survived, turning things around in the third and fourth decades of the present century. One entry point for these future investigators of the past is the life story of Chuck Turner of Roxbury. His was a full life—one that personified the social struggles of the late 20th century while laying the groundwork for that better possible world that competes with other projects for the future. In the long relay race of oppressed communities and the global working class, Chuck Turner picked up the baton in the 1960s as a young activist in the Northern Student Movement (a wing of the civil rights movement). By Christmas Day 2019 when he walked on, that beginning had been eclipsed by a series of powerful base-building projects—many that at once challenged the ruling class while creatively empowering the excluded and the exploited.
No wonder then that when the city of Boston last hosted a major national party convention in 2004 and the people of Boston organized a social forum, its convener, Jason Pramas, now a principal at DigBoston, called upon Chuck Turner and not then-mayor Thomas Menino to open the proceedings. Introduced as “the people’s mayor,” Turner, who was an early sponsor of the Boston Social Forum effort, welcomed his audience of 5,000 people by noting our city’s troubled identity as a “Cradle of Liberty.”
A deeply thoughtful activist, he had an eye to history and its many stories. While very conscious of his pan-African roots and of global struggles for sovereignty and freedom, Chuck Turner was also aware that these would only remain abstract commitments unless matched by on-the-ground organizing and service.
Commentators on his passing have recognized his “laser focus” on jobs—his campaigns to open the building trades to all Boston residents, including people of color and women. This work was about building a multiracial, working-class movement just as much as it was about justice for Boston’s super-exploited African American communities. Even with this sustained, decades-long project, Chuck Turner recognized that power has to be contested on many planes, some far beyond his boisterous picket lines outside construction sites.
One less well-known terrain was built out of his attention to intimate partner violence—long before our present, unjustly deferred attention to gendered violence. People, in Turner’s eyes, are not disposable and will continue to affect community life long after the injustices perpetrated upon them or those that they may have carried out. For Turner, the solutions offered by the state—incarceration and punishment—helped neither survivor nor transgressor. Instead, he counseled abusers and sought restorative justice. One of the organizations that he helped build, EMERGE: A Men’s Counseling Service on Domestic Violence, continues to operate to this day.
Other legacies abound. As residents of Boston’s South End enjoy the Southwest Corridor Park along the Orange Line, they should thank Chuck Turner. He was a critical and leading member of the citywide coalition in the 1960s to early 1970s that thwarted the construction of a highway, one that would have bisected our city. In its place, Turner and his comrades built a park and a subway line. Similarly, Turner was very focused on education, particularly at the K-12 levels. In the 1980s, following Boston’s busing struggles, Turner was part of the effort to push for Roxbury’s independence from the city of Boston. Although that drive did not find success on its own terms, it helped create the political space for the land trust movement, one that has since become a model for working-class communities to challenge the logic of global capital.
All of these activities came well before Turner’s 1999 decision to run for office and serve our city as one of its councilors. Public office for him was an extension of his grassroots organizing work. His office became a platform for addressing the concerns of his constituents as well as those of the broader community. Frequently criticized for taking stands on matters like the US invasion of Iraq or the plight of the Palestinian people, paradoxically he was also attacked for his focus of local injustices facing communities of color and workers. For him, these were all of the same cloth.
He recognized that Boston is a global city benefiting both from its place in the international division of labor and its intimate involvement in our government’s war-making activities. This made his tenure as a public servant that of an activist in council chambers and a councilor on the streets. Unlike his peers, underscoring his respect for democracy and accountability, Turner operated an office in his district—in Nubian Square—one funded out of his wages. He also convened weekly meetings in John Eliot Square. Not only were these “District Seven Roundtable” meetings a place where constituents could meet their representative, but they were also where activists from elsewhere could engage directly with Turner and his constituents.
One of the outgrowths of these meetings was a city-wide and later national effort, “Fund the Dream,” in which Turner sought to build a multiracial coalition that would reallocate and reprioritize public spending away from the weapons industries and toward social needs. When Turner helped open the Boston Social Forum, he presented this initiative in light of Martin Luther King’s injunction to “build the Beloved Community.”
With this record, it should come as no surprise that Chuck Turner was pushed out of office, not by voters, but by an illegal city council decision—one that Chuck’s comrade and fellow councilor Charles Yancey valiantly opposed. The rationale for the council’s vote, however, was a serious one: Turner had been charged and convicted of receiving a bribe and of making false statements to the FBI about the alleged bribe. Closer inspection of the record will reveal that the charges and convictions were based on serious exaggerations by the prosecutors who only had grounds for reprimanding possible violations of campaign financing rules.
Insisting on his innocence—indeed, prosecutors essentially conceded that there was no quid pro quo—Turner fought the charges but lost. He remained true to his principles, taking the stand—against the advice of counsel—before a jury, not of his peers, but of largely suburban residents with little knowledge of either Turner’s record of service or his constituents. He stayed loyal to his lawyers even when it seemed that one of them may have alienated the judge and jury.
On hearing the jury’s decision, Turner appeared both stunned and curious—wondering how it was that they had reached their conclusion. Almost immediately thereafter, he was thrust before the press. Surrounded by throngs of supporters, this writer among them, he delivered a powerful impromptu speech to the mostly hostile media.
Summoning great dignity, intoning the struggles of Africans in America before him, he spoke about the prospects of a prison sentence, declaring that just as he had entered the city council as an organizer, he would do the same upon entering prison. Serving an unusually harsh custodial sentence in a federal prison some 600 miles from Boston, he regularly communicated with the public via letters detailing the realities of mass incarceration as well as its impacts on the imprisoned and their communities.
As he entered, Turner also left prison an organizer, returning to Boston to assist social movements, bringing both a stern gravitas and canny strategic counsel to bear on many causes, especially those that address our city’s grave and growing inequities.
In an era where parts of the Democratic Party are being revitalized by new energies and activism, it is easy to forget Chuck Turner’s wariness of that entity and his decision to build, at least at the statewide level, an alternative in the form of the Green-Rainbow Party, our state’s affiliate of the Green Party.
For Turner, political independence from the ruling class mattered. In that sense, he best exemplified Boston’s distinctive contribution to the Black Radical Tradition, one in which it made sense to work across and against lines of race while retaining the right to organize independently as an oppressed community. With this strategic starting place, Turner added his voice to a long line of Bostonian residents from Beacon Hill’s David Walker and Maria Stewart in the later 1820s and 1830s, to Dorchester’s William Monroe Trotter in the early 1900s, to Roxbury’s Ruth Batson in the 1960s, and to his peers of the 1970s and 1980s including the South End’s Mel King and the metro-wide Combahee River Collective.
Their strand of thinking and activism demands both cross-sectoral collaborations and the building of autonomous power: Turner’s defining contribution in his focus on jobs extended beyond rights in and to the workplaces of corporations and governments to the building of cooperative forms of labor and association—the building of working-class independence. Several generations of contemporary Boston organizers, many of whom are assiduously working for justice and social change, have been mentored by Chuck Turner and today are entrusted with the baton he has handed off.
A long-time Turner collaborator, former union organizer Dorotea Manuela, recalls her first meetings with Turner in the ’70s. She had come up from New York City to help clerical workers at Harvard unionize. Chuck welcomed her even though he was organizing with other sectors. Her first impression: “This is a man who lives his ideals.” Nearly a half-century later, working with Turner throughout on a range of issues from gun violence in Boston neighborhoods to US violence abroad, that is still her impression. It will surely be in those contested ideals that future historians will find a lens into our political moment, helping us understand how it got to be so bad, and perhaps how it would be changed for the better.
On Jan 10, 2020, Chuck Turner’s family and supporters are holding a memorial service at 10 am at the First Church in Roxbury (near Roxbury Crossing).
Suren Moodliar is co-author of A People’s Guide to Greater Boston (UC Press 2020), managing editor of Socialism and Democracy, and a coordinator of encuentro5, a movement-building space in downtown Boston. He was a key organizer of the 2004 Boston Social Forum.