Mary Turner: A Black Lives Matter Advocate Who Died Because She Scared White People
In 1918, a pregnant Black woman was murdered because she threatened White people with justice.
Warning: story contains descriptions of a violent lynching
I think a lot about Mary Turner, who was murdered because she made White people afraid.
In May 1918, a White plantation owner named Hampton Smith was murdered by one of his Black employees. And I am using the term employee here, very liberally. As mentioned by maryturner.org, “Hampton Smith was known for abusing and beating his workers to the point few people in the area would work for him. To solve this labor shortage, Smith turned to the debt peonage system of the day and found a ready labor pool.” One day, one of his workers, Sidney Johnson became tired of the abuse. After a violent interaction, Sidney arranged for Hampton Smith to leave this Earth with a bullet as his chauffer.
Then, Sidney ran for his life. Sidney was killed days later, but the manhunt for him started a whirlwind of violence aimed at the Black community.
This killing and the hunt that followed sparked the May 1918 lynchings: A white mob, looking for quick and violent justice swept across the county, killing any Black man with suspicion cast upon him. One man, Hayes Turner, had an unsavory history with Hampton. According to an article published in The Crisis Magazine, Hayes was “another Negro who had suffered at the hands of Smith, and his wife, Mary Turner, whom Smith had beaten on several occasions.” It was under this cloud of suspicion that Hayes was lynched. It was this death that caused Mary Turner, his wife, and eight months pregnant, to come forward.
Mary could have stayed silent. She could have held in the pain and said nothing for years. Instead, in the middle of the Jim Crow Era, in the deep south, Mary did something radical: she threatened White people. She swore she would see the murderers of her husband brought to justice. Mary’s promise to prosecute the people who killed her husband was something that threatened the core of Jim Crow life: White people being held accountable. Her words tore deep into the White community that had become used to delivering mob justice with no consequences. Not only where they being threatened with justice for the murder of a Black person, something that was normalized within their community, but it was a Black woman that caused the fear. And for that, she was punished.
“When this had been done [burning her alive] and while she was yet alive, a knife… was taken and the woman’s abdomen was cut open, the unborn babe falling from her womb to the ground. The infant, prematurely born, gave two feeble cries and then its head was crush by a member of the mob with his heel. Hundreds of bullets were then fired into the body of the woman….”
White’s description is horrific and paints the dark reality of a lynching. It was a slow and purposefully painful death. Mary Turner was tortured in her last moments of life. Her death was an act of White sadism and was done to punish her for daring to disrupt the social hierarchy. In the midst of the Jim Crow Era, Mary’s death, along with many others was done with the sole purpose of destroying any Black agency.
With recent global Black Lives Matter protests, I think about Mary a lot. Mary dared to question the status quo of Jim Crow era Georgia. She questioned the systems in place that allowed a mob of angry White people to murder her husband. Then, Mary, a Black woman who was severely disadvantaged socially and politically, put her life on the line for justice.
Mary Turner was an early Black Lives Matter advocate.
As a Black historian, I am often astonished at the rhetoric I hear discussing the Black Lives Matter movement. While much of it is aimed at attempting to silence Black voices by quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech, a lot is also geared at this falsehood that this movement is new. As if the Black Lives Matter movement sprang from the ground with no historic background. The reality is that Black people have always demanded equality in this nation. We have always said that Black Lives Matter. Mary Turner’s case is a clear indication of how our ancestors demanded our humanity be acknowledged. Mary demanded that like anyone else murdered in the United States, her husband’s killers be given a trial her husband had been denied.
Lynching confirmed one awful reality for Black Americans: Black lives did not matter. As a Black person in the Jim Crow era, one could be lynched for not respecting a White person enough, or writing a letter to a White woman. There were no clear rules for avoiding a lynching. Survival relied upon the good graces and temperament of White people in the community. Anything that threatened them or stoked their fears was grounds for violence. This legacy has continued in the United States; Black people are punished for threatening White spaces and stoking White anxiety.
Looking at the various reasons for someone being lynched in the Jim Crow era, I only see a commonality with the Black deaths of today. Ahmaud Arbery was shot for running while Black. Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing a hoodie while Black. Breonna Taylor was killed for sleeping while Black. Lynchings have not changed. At the core, they have remained a way for White Americans and law enforcement to keep Black Americans afraid. The experience of being Black is filled with terror. But, there have always been activists fighting that hate.
In response to the epidemic of Black death at the hands of White communities, the NCAAP began an anti-lynching campaign in 1916. Speaking on the work of the NCAAP during the Jim Crow Era, Professor Karlos K. Hill wrote, “Between 1920 and 1950 the NAACP tirelessly campaigned for federal antilynching laws… although federal antilynching laws were never adopted, the NAACP’s activism placed greater pressure on southern states to pass antilynching laws and southern localities to punish whites who aided and abetted lynch mob violence.” Professor Hill’s observation demonstrates something crucial: this campaigning was the foundation of working towards an America where Black people could function in public spaces. The tireless fight to stop lynchings against Black people was about creating an America where Black people could be safe. It was about assuring that Black people’s humanity was recognized and if it was not, the justice system would prosecute those who ignored our humanity.
Anti-lynching advocacy has not changed since the early days of the NCAAP. Only the name.
As a historian, I see a continuation of the work our ancestors did before us. In their times, they were also called radicals. Their work was devalued, and they were attacked for their beliefs. Watching the tear gas released on Black Lives Matter activists harkens back to the images of dogs released on Civil Rights activists. It does not surprise me that Black Lives Matter receives the hate it does. Social change is rarely welcomed with open arms by those who benefit from current systems in place.
Black Lives Matter is a movement that demands Black people are treated with the dignity and respect that White Americans have always had. As the case of Mary Turner shows, this has always been a radical demand that makes people uncomfortable. But it is one that despite lynch mobs, bullets, and fear tactics has never been halted.
Note: The Mary Turner Project, mentioned at the beginning, has a lot of phenomenal resources on it about this case. Their website was an important starting point. I also recommend some of the sources below.
Works I Recommend:
At The Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America by Philip Dray
Walter White: Mr. NAACP by Kenneth Robert Janken
One hundred years ago, Mary Turner was lynched by a white mob by Leonard Pitts, Jr.