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Activist, Scholar James Turner Passes

Turner led the Bursar’s Office Takeover in 1968, which resulted in lasting improvements for Northwestern’s Black student population, and then went on to become a prominent Africana scholar.

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James Turner speaks to reporters during the Bursar's Office Takeover on Northwestern's campus in 1968.Image: Gary Price, The Daily Northwestern

By Diana Babineau
August 18, 2022
3 Responses

The world needs good disruptors — people who stand up against injustice and inequity and strive for a better future — and James Turner ’68 MA is perhaps one of the most important disruptors in Northwestern’s history.

On May 3, 1968, just one month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Turner led 120 students in a peaceful, 38-hour sit-in at Northwestern’s Bursar’s Office to protest the racism and injustices Black students faced on campus. Turner served as a lead negotiator in the protest, which resulted in the University agreeing to eight concrete actions to improve the Black student experience, including the creation of The Black House and an expansion of the curriculum to include Black studies, among other improvements. (Read more about the Bursar’s Office Takeover and the 50th anniversary commemoration.)

A skilled organizer, civil rights activist and scholar of Africana studies, Turner died Aug. 6 at age 82 in Ithaca, N.Y.

“We are in his debt, literally, for the existence of our department,” says Martha Biondi, Lorraine H. Morton Professor of African American Studies and professor of history who teaches in the recently renamed Black Studies department at Northwestern. “He was an important figure in building Black studies as a discipline, defending its legitimacy and really insisting upon its intellectual heft.”

At Northwestern, Biondi adds, Turner was a mentor to other students and “fostered a greater degree of Black consciousness and commitment to the Black liberation struggle on campus. The Black graduate students started informally teaching Black studies before Black studies existed.

“Turner was unusual in that he was involved in both parts of the Black studies movement: He was involved in the student activism that helped to create it; and then he went on to become a professional in the field.”

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James Turner, center, speaks to reporters in front of the Bursar's Office in 1968. James Sweet Collection, Northwestern University Archives

Turner was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1940 and grew up in Harlem, listening to Malcolm X, reading W.E.B. Du Bois and keenly observing and learning about the Black liberation struggle in the U.S. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and political economy at Central Michigan University before moving to Northwestern, where he enrolled as a graduate student of sociology and worked as a graduate assistant in the University’s African Studies Center at the height of the civil rights movement. (Read more about Turner’s early beginnings in activism.)

Intent on improving the Black student experience at Northwestern, Turner founded and served as president of the African American Student Union, which raised funds to assist Black student activists in the South, offered legal assistance and provided bail bonds. Taking cues from Black students’ protests in the South, Turner and other leaders from the nascent Black student group For Members Only played an instrumental role in moving the University toward creating a more equitable, enriching environment for Black students.

“James Turner helped me and many other Black students at Northwestern understand that, in addition to getting an education, we were obligated to help transform educational institutions on the issue of race,” says Eva Jefferson Paterson ’71, ’22 H, who protested alongside Turner during the Takeover and is now president and co-founder of the Equal Justice Society in Oakland, Calif. “He helped me become the woman I am today.” (Read Paterson’s account of the Takeover.)

After graduating with his master’s degree from Northwestern, Turner went on to earn a PhD from the Union Graduate School in Cincinnati and continued his civil rights advocacy through academia. In 1969 he moved to Ithaca and joined Cornell University as founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at a time when the university had very few Black tenured professors and no African American studies curriculum. Turner, who coined the term “Africana studies” to embrace a more comprehensive study of the African diaspora and its resulting cultures and histories, served as director of the center until 1986 and also taught as a professor of African and African American politics and social policy at Cornell for many years. He later returned as director of the center from 1996 to 2001. He and his wife, Janice Turner, were active members of the Ithaca community, leaving a decades-long impact through their service in various community organizations.

Turner was an active global citizen as well, particularly regarding the anti-apartheid movement. He served as co-chair of the International Congress of Africanists in Ethiopia in 1973, chair of the North American delegation to the Sixth Pan African Congress in 1974 and was also a national organizer for the Southern African Liberation Support Committee. He helped found the African American lobbying organization TransAfrica in 1977 and served as an academic adviser for an episode of the PBS series Eyes on the Prize, which recounts prominent moments in the civil rights era.

Turner leaves a lasting legacy not only for the prominent and inspirational role he had in Northwestern’s progress toward equity and inclusion but also for his contributions in expanding the bounds of academic scholarship. 

“Some people thought that Black studies would emerge and maybe have a short lifespan, influence other departments, and then just disappear,” says Biondi, who interviewed Turner for her 2014 book The Black Revolution on Campus. “But that wasn’t the vision of these founders,” she says, speaking of Turner and the other leaders of the Bursar’s Office Takeover. “They were very prescient. They really understood that it was its own robust, intellectual, scholarly field that had a lot to offer the world of ideas and knowledge, and that it should last forever.”

By insisting on Black studies’ legitimacy, Turner helped pave the way for others to pursue fields of thought that were previously disregarded, disrespected or neglected in academia: Latinx studies, Asian American studies, gender and women studies, and a whole host of other fields to come, says Biondi. “Black studies was an important model.”

Paterson agrees. “He had an amazingly distinguished and deep career in Black studies, which he called Africana studies. I so admired him and loved him. Rest in power, Dr. Turner. Rest in power.”

Turner is survived by his wife and his three children: Hassan, Sekai and Tshaka.

Diana Babineau is a writer and editor for Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.

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Reader Responses

  • Dr. Turner was an activist and a scholar whose legacy of bravery while a student leader at Northwestern paved the way for untold numbers of Black students to attend Northwestern. The multiplicative effect of his actions, and the actions of his fellow Black students, cannot be measured. RIH Brother Dr. James Turner.

    James Tucker ’76 Chicago, via LinkedIn

  • Dr. James Turner paved the way for Black students like me who followed. Thanks for your brave leadership!

    Venita Fields ’75 Evanston, via LinkedIn

  • His actions and leadership began an era of student activism that lasted through the end of the Vietnam war and reverberates today wherever people still follow his example.

    Dave Conant ’72 St. Louis, via LinkedIn

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