John Lewis Turner, Jr., African-American lawyer and civil rights advocate, son of John L. Turner, Sr., and Annie Mae (Cates) Turner, was born in Dallas on September 3, 1916. The younger Turner joined sisters Bernadine and Minnie as the third child in their family.
Turner’s father, J. L. Turner, Sr., pioneered the legal profession in Dallas’s Black community and became one of the earliest Black lawyers to practice in Dallas when he opened an office in the late 1890s. Considered an authority on land titles, J. L. Turner, Sr., worked mainly on real estate and probate cases, but he also worked criminal cases. Turner’s mother, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas, died in 1919. His father never remarried. The Turner family lived—and the elder Turner died—at 1821 Allen Street. Turner Sr. also had an office at 614 ½ Commerce Street, the location of the George L. Allen, Sr. Courts Building in 2014.
All three children born to John Sr. and Annie Turner graduated from college. John Turner, Jr., obtained his bachelor’s degree from Bishop College in 1936 and went on to do graduate work at the University of Michigan. He obtained a law degree from Chicago-Kent School of Law in 1941 and immediately upon passing the Texas bar exam enlisted in the United States Army in August 1941. He served as a trial judge advocate and eventually attained the rank of first lieutenant. After leaving the army, Turner joined with his father to establish Turner & Turner at the Commerce Street location. They remained partners until John Sr.’s death in 1951.
During this time Turner met William J. Durham, recently triumphant, along with Thurgood Marshall, in the Houston voting rights case Smith v. Allwright (1944), heard before the U. S. Supreme Court. Durham also worked on several other landmark civil rights cases, including Sweatt v. Painter (1950), which set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education (1954) a few years later. In Dallas these actions began a cascade of lawsuits attacking segregation in the city, particularly in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). The legal actions were led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chief regional counsel U. Simpson Tate, national NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall, and two of Dallas’s foremost Black lawyers—Durham and Crawford B. Bunkley, Jr. Other young lawyers like Turner Jr. joined the cause in order to “help and aid in assisting in any way” they could.
On May 4, 1952, Turner co-founded the Barristers’ Club—an organization he chaired until 1969. The Dallas lawyer’s group, renamed the J. L. Turner Legal Association in 1956 for the new chairman’s father, organized in response to the Dallas Bar Association’s refusal to admit Black lawyers. Every Black lawyer in Dallas attended the first meeting. There were twelve members—Turner, L. A. Bedford, W. J. Durham, Romeo Williams, Duane B. Mason, L. Clayton Rivers, Jack Terry, U. Simpson Tate, Kenneth F. Holbert, C. W. Ashberry, Robert Rice, and Crawford B. Bunkley, Jr. Formed to address common problems and simply for fellowship and camaraderie among the Black legal community, the organization included several founding members that went on to lead the legal fight on segregation in Dallas and in Texas.
A discrimination suit brought against Kilgore Junior College in 1952 marked Turner’s entry into civil rights litigation. Eleven plaintiffs, all Kilgore residents and all Black high school graduates, challenged the school’s decision not to admit them. The legal team included Tate, Durham, and Turner.
In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Turner joined W. J. Durham, Thurgood Marshall, U. S. Tate, C. B. Bunkley, Jr., Louis A. Bedford, Jr., and others in a series of lawsuits seeking to expedite the integration of Dallas’s public schools. Among these cases were Brown v. Rippy, Bell v. Rippy, and Borders v. Rippy. Similar lawsuits also occurred throughout the state. In response, Tyler District Judge Otis T. Dunigan ordered a halt to NAACP operations statewide. However, Turner and his colleagues persisted.
The order barring NAACP operations served little real effect, but it was one more irritant to overcome in the heated battle to desegregate Texas schools. Dallas’s Black lawyers made easy targets for threats, but most had become accustomed to experiencing racism inside and outside of the courtroom. Turner and others called the hate mail they received “Crank letters” and joked about them. What did frighten the lawyers, however, was the possibility of barratry (when attorneys instigate a client to pursue a legal case) charges against them, which could result in disbarment. The problem for Black lawyers in Dallas was that barratry charges were addressed by a committee of lawyers from the local bar association. At the time, the Dallas Bar Association refused to admit Blacks.
Despite the uphill battles, the legal campaign for school segregation continued, and Dallas continued to resist. Finally, Northern District of Texas Judge Thomas Whitfield Davidson reluctantly ordered DISD to scrap its phased desegregation plan and immediately begin integration at the demand of the Fifth Circuit and Supreme Court.
Judge Davidson’s order did not end the civil rights battle in Dallas or anywhere else in America, but integration slowly entered the legal mainstream. Things quieted down for Turner after the excitement of these early years, however. Aside from his activities with the J. L. Turner Legal Association, which continued to offer scholarships, mentors, and community programs, little evidence marks his presence and activities. Turner died respected and remembered by his colleagues in Dallas on March 3, 1984.