Former civil rights attorney Jim Turner visits campus to recount civil rights involvement

The MU graduate’s new book, “Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials: The First Modern Civil Rights Convictions,” focuses on the convictions of former Ku Klux Klan members.

Jim Turner, former deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division, stood in front of a room of approximately 50 MU students and guests on March 7 inside the Reynolds Journalism Institute and recounted his involvement in the civil rights movement.

Turner was joined by his son, Jim Turner Jr., and together they discussed the senior Turner’s role in the Viola Liuzzo trial. The duo also talked about the Los Angeles Police Department beatings of Rodney King, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Associate professor Berkley Hudson, who introduced Turner to the audience, described him as a “living embodiment of U.S. history in the 20th century.”

Turner graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in 1952. He returned to his home state to earn his law degree from the University of Colorado.

After short stints at the Department of Justice’s Tax Division and in private practice, Turner started working as a civil rights attorney under the Eisenhower administration. He served under 17 different attorneys general, retiring during the Clinton administration.

The Liuzzo case was Turner’s first as a Justice Department official. In it, he was part of a team tasked with prosecuting three members of the Ku Klux Klan who were charged with the murder of Liuzzo following the freedom marches from Selma to Montgomery.

Matt Murphy, who provided the defense for the Klansmen, consistently used vulgar language throughout the trial, language that Turner relayed during his Wednesday lecture.

It is because of Turner’s exposure to Murphy and the atrocities of the Klan that he decided not to capitalize “Ku Klux Klan” in his new book, “Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials: The First Modern Civil Rights Convictions,” despite journalistic norms that require it.

“I don’t think they warrant it,” Turner said.

After two hung juries, the Klansmen were eventually convicted of murder.

Turner believes the Klansmen’s conviction holds an important place in American history, as it was the first time an Alabama court convicted Klansmen of doing anything illegal.

The case “was the beginning of the end of excusing illegal Klansman behavior and [the beginning of] expanding equal protection under the law,” Turner said.

Part of Turner’s rationale for writing the Liuzzo book is his belief that the case teaches valuable lessons that should be considered today. It is a belief that Hudson shares.

“It matters today,” Hudson said. “It matters today in terms of voting rights. It also matters in terms of listening to each other on contentious subject matter such as race relations and violence.”

Edited by Skyler Rossi |

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