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Tom Turnipseed: Race Treason and the Promise of Left Populism

“I’ve always been a populist,” Tom Turnipseed, once told me. “I just had the wrong idea of who I should be fighting for.” The political career of Turnipseed, who died last week at the age of 83, is an extraordinary one. He was the national director of Alabama Governor and segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 national presidential campaign before having a radical change of heart that committed him to antiracist, anti-corporate and ecological struggles for the rest of his life.

Turnipseed was born in 1936 in Mobile, Alabama, the grandson of a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. After attending the University of North Carolina for both his B.A. and law degrees, he moved to Columbia, South Carolina in the early 1960s, where he joined the fight maintain segregation. In response to school desegregation orders, Turnipseed became the first director of the South Carolina Independent School District, where he helped create a network of tax-exempt private secondary academies for white children.

For these efforts Turnipseed was asked by Wallace’s people to lead his 1968 independent presidential campaign. Wallace claimed to “stand up for the working man” while railing against liberal elites, federal bureaucrats, and both major political parties, of which he said there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference.”  Wallace’s populist crusade was attractive to Turnipseed. As he once told an interviewer, “George Wallace was an anti-establishment person, and that appealed to me. I always had a lot of rebel in me, and here was George Wallace taking on the Yankees again, taking on the liberals, taking on the Civil Rights Movement, and so forth. And doing it in a way that appealed to the average person in the South, the little guy.”

Charming and garrulous, Turnipseed seemed like a good choice for reaching out beyond white southerners to build a national coalition of diverse regional and political characteristics – white ethnics in northeastern and Midwest industrial cities, and strong conservatives in the west. But the Wallace campaign’s goal of achieving ballot status in all fifty states ultimately depended on building a network of fringe elements: John Birch Society members, neo-Nazis, Minutemen, and other far-right groups and individuals. During the California ballot drive for instance, one of the chief Wallace organizers in Los Angeles revealed to Turnipseed a cache of artillery in the back of a pickup truck. As Turnipseed later recounted, “I asked the guy, ‘What’s going on?’ He told me, ‘We’re doing maneuvers.’ ‘Well, with who?’ I asked him, ‘The National Guard?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘we’re a private group, a militia.’ So I asked him, ‘Well who are you armed against? The Communists gonna get you?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘we’re more concerned with Rockefeller interests and the Trilateral Commission.’ I just looked at the guy, you know? What could I say?”

1968 was a turbulent and violent year. Martin Luther King’s assassination and the uprisings that followed underscored the sharp political and racial divides in the country, as did the constant brawls that erupted at Wallace campaign events. It was increasingly difficult to believe that the Wallace movement was really just protecting regular folks from arrogant bureaucrats and liberal snobs. Turnipseed was forced to begin to reckon on the race hatred at the heart of Wallaceism. He later recounted an exchange he had with a bartender in the town of Webster, MA during the campaign: “[The bartender] said, ‘Now, when George Wallace is elected president, he’s going to line up all the n*****s and kill them, isn’t he?’ And all of a sudden, I realized the man was serious, and I said, ‘Hell, no. I mean, he’s worried about this and that and the other thing, but nothing like that.’ And it kind of got to me to know that these people really felt that way, that they wanted to kill Black people, you know, and it got me starting to think in changing my views from that point on, I guess. I mean, subconsciously, at least.”

Turnipseed helped Wallace win over 13 percent of the vote in the general election, and push the eventual winner, Richard Nixon, rightward on issues of busing and “law and order.” After the election, Turnipseed, now a seasoned veteran of southern and national politics, might have concluded that while open white supremacy was too extreme, that a more coded politics that focused on issues of crime, welfare and ‘states’ rights’ would be an acceptable alternative; particularly if attached to economic conservatism, as the GOP was now doing. This was the path taken by a generation of white Southern Democrats who became Republicans in the decades after 1968. Many successful political careers were forged in this transformation, from Jesse Helms to Trent Lott to Newt Gingrich – following the lead of former Dixiecrat Presidential candidate, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. But that wasn’t the choice he made.

Turnipseed and his wife Judy moved back to Columbia, South Carolina, where he began to forge a new political direction.1973, he ran for state attorney general, choosing exploitive utility rate practices as one of his first public issues. “We were taking on the power structure, and the allies we needed to help us build a coalition were the working-class poor,” Turnipseed said later. This coalition-building brought him into black neighborhoods, to meetings with black organizations, and to an understanding of populist struggle that was truly multiracial. “The rate hike hearings offered an opportunity to bridge the divide between poor blacks and whites,” Turnipseed reflected. “Our successful coalition helped me realize how prejudiced I had been against black people.”

As a progressive Democrat, Turnipseed served in the State House and ran for Congress, Governor, Attorney General and other positions, always taking aim at the rich and powerful. He lost more often than he won, but was always able to inject a disruptive sense of the popular will into the politics of the state. As one reporter described him, “As a South Carolina state senator in the late 1970’s, he was dapper and charming, outrageous and impolite–affronting his legislative colleagues by, among other things, appearing with a couple of disc jockey buddies on the floor of the Senate and singing country songs about rising gas prices.”

He was also an early victim of GOP operative Lee Atwater in a race for the second congressional district. Working for Turnipseed’s Republican opponent, Atwater discovered that Turnipseed had received electroshock therapy for depression as a teenager, and leaked to the press that he had “been hooked up to jumper cables.” Turnipseed lost that race, but afterwards spoke openly about his early depression, and served as a member of the board of the state Mental Health Association.

As civil litigation lawyer, Turnipseed was co-counsel for the African-American Macedonia Baptist Church, successfully suing the Klan in 1997 for burning down its church sanctuary for $37 million in damages.  He served as chairman of the Board of the Center for Democratic Renewal (formerly the Anti-Klan Network), and was a longtime board member of the South Carolina NAACP. \

In recent decades he was active in anti-war protests, the Occupy movement, and immigrant rights struggles. He and Judy focused particularly on issues of homelessness. For 17 years they shared food with hungry and homeless people every Sunday with the anarchist collective, Food Not Bombs. He wrote frequently for CounterPunch, as well as Common Dreams and other left publications.

How was it that Turnipseed could call himself a populist from the time he worked for Wallace until the end of his life? Populism is a tradition steeped in the white supremacy of demagogues like South Carolina’s “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman who railed against “the big interests” above while blaming black people below. But it is also the tradition of radical democracy that produced alliances between black and white agrarian laborers against both the planter class and the plutocrats of the late 19th century.

These are distinct traditions, but in a country where popular sovereignty and white supremacy have both been central to American national identity, lines between them can blur. Georgia Farmers’ Alliance leader Tom Watson championed the cause of black and white farmers before embracing  nativism and rank white supremacy later in his political life. George Wallace began his own career as a racial moderate, having been mentored by Alabama Governor “Big” Jim Folsom, a fiercely antiracist populist. Opportunism got the better of Wallace, who turned learned how to turn white resentment into racist votes in the wake of the Brown v Board of Education.

Turnipseed went the opposite direction, realizing that working-class African Americans, whites, and Latino immigrants all shared the same fate, if not always the same challenges. “Think of the tremendous power that people have if they just get together,” he once told an interviewer. “We can’t let money rule us, just absolutely rule every phase and aspect of our lives.” He remained a powerful critic of elites in both political parties who put the interests of capital and empire before people and the planet.

Reporter Frye Gailliard wrote about Turnipseed when he lost the race for Lieutenant Governor in 1982, that “he was angry and shrill, and even some of the people who agreed with him finally wished he’d go away. So he lost. That’s a shame, however, because politics can do with a little more passion. And particularly so when that sense of being right comes, as Turnipseed’s did, from a deeply felt knowledge of what it means to be wrong.”

I got to know Tom a little bit in the last few years, and was twice fortunate enough to have him speak over Skype to a class in U.S. racial politics I teach at the University of Oregon. The students loved him: he was honest about his racist past, blunt about his radicalism, fascinating in his stories, and charming in his inquiries about the Oregon track program. He helped them understand the rise of the right in the 1960s, and the rise of Trumpism today.

As someone who helped launch the very right-wing populist movement that would eventually bring Donald Trump to power, Turnipseed knew that people’s rage against elites in and of itself wasn’t the problem. The question is which people – a question which he ultimately answered with great clarity.

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