AFTER THE TAKEDOWN: The Van Turner Jr. conversation; Part II


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Van Turner Jr. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

In the conclusion of his wide-ranging conversation with TSD Associate Publisher/Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku, Memphis Greenspace, Inc. President Van Turner Jr. details the broader goals of the nonprofit that bought two city parks and removed the Confederate statues. He also reflects on the prospects of legal challenges and the role of activists and shares his vision of a unified African-American Community.

Karanja A. Ajanaku: So, Memphis Greenspace, Inc. is not designed just for the statues. Tell us more of what you see is in its design.

Van Turner Jr.: There are a number of park lands, park spaces throughout the city (that) need attention, especially in some of the more challenged neighborhoods. Part of what we want to do is take over some of those more challenged parks and see if we can revitalize them. What does that mean?

It means new playgrounds. That means goals that work with nets that are situated to where they can be used. That means grills, that means making sure that there are benches that work, making sure that the places are clean and in a presentable way; not just a place where bad things happen with graffiti all over the place.

…We see that when you change these open spaces and these green spaces, that could really improve communities. When people talk about the glory days of the city … that time meant being able to go to your neighborhood school, being able to go to your neighborhood park, being able to have a block party and enjoy your community and not be afraid to go outside or talk with your neighbors…

That’s what it is going to take to really bring these communities back in or to revitalize these communities. We view these green spaces in these parks as something that could contribute to what’s going on. We hear about the Greenline and all those nice things. But sometimes (it) may not be as convenient to get out to the Greenline or to all these other places, which are made for this but people can’t get to them.

KAA: Getting control of these parks, you paid a thousand dollars for each of them. … (Some) … people are concerned about the process, that maybe due process wasn’t followed, that others should have had the opportunity to bid on the (sale of the parks), that it was done “in the dark of night.” You’ve heard that, right?

VTJ: Yes, yes. I would just say that we are an entity made for the green spaces, no doubt. But we’re also an entity that will probably have to withstand lawsuits and legal challenges, and we will be in court. So I think part of the rationale is you needed a mix of the two.

Should you had just transferred (the parks) to any number of agencies that said they could have done it and they run parks and that’s what they do, I don’t know if they would necessarily have been situated such that the lawsuits would not impede what needs to happen. …I’m in court almost every day. … Should we go to court, it’s nothing new to me.

…To the extent that it is transferred (later) to some other entity, that maybe that’s the major cause that they have taken up or they could do it better than we can do it, I think all that can still be on the table. …It had to be an entity that could withstand the legal challenges that may be in the future. … I’m a lawyer and we have two attorneys on our board. We are lawyer heavy, knowing that it’s coming. We got to be ready.

As for as the process, the process followed the ordinance. That was to change. I think heretofore you probably had to do the bid, be at the courthouse steps and do the whole nine. But people got to look at the process. If you don’t like how it was done, you should have addressed the City Council when the ordinance was passed. That was the time to do it. … No one challenged them. The ordinance was passed and it made this process easier to happen. It made it legal.

I get what they’re saying and I understand what they’re saying. … In the long run I think this was the best course of action to take right now.

As an attorney and as an elected official I get both sides of what needs to take place and what’s happening. I think for a number of reasons (that) persons in the city felt more confident using me at this particular point in time as opposed to other folks. We’ll see what the future holds. The ordinance made it illegal and nothing ran afoul of the law. To the extent that others may be interested in the future, we’re open to hear what they have to say.

KAA. …Would you speak to the concern that this will set a bad precedent; that they will be able to use this (process) to do other things.

VTJ: As a lawyer you’ve got to think of all options. What bad thing could there be? I really don’t see the downside. I think the process was vetted, the receiving body was vetted, which means us. We did something that I think needed to be down and to move the city forward.

In order to transfer the park to Greenspace, it took three readings (before the City Council) per an ordinance. This didn’t happen in the veil of darkness and overnight. So going forward or should something like this happen in the future, you’ve got three ordinances that have got to be read. If you are going to protest, protest. If you have a valid protest, I’m sure the City Council will hear you out and decide otherwise if it is for a bad purpose that the transfer is for.

Speak out and let the City Council know. That’s representative government. You chose the City Council and they chose to do this with three reading of an ordinance, which is how government works. And if you don’t like it, challenge it. If you don’t like the person doing it, challenge them.

KAA: Within the African-American community, most people wanted the statues to come down. Others – a few – thought we didn’t need to put any energy on this. Others had been on the battlefield a long time; you had newcomers. I pick up a little bit of friction, maybe concern, between some of those elements. Did you?

VTJ: We shouldn’t use what is otherwise a moment in time and a moment in Memphis history – which we can all say (that) finally something has been done that should have been done a long time ago – to divide us. I get it that Ms. Tami Sawyer, pastor Earle Fisher, Black Lives Matter, TakeEmDown901 had been at this thing maybe the last year, year and a half. They were part of the process, but you can’t say that they were the soul persons.

Because what about in 2005-6 and (200)7 Walter Bailey, now deceased judge D’Army Bailey, (Rev.) LaSimba Gray – all those guys working. They’re part of it. You can’t discount the mayor. Mayor Strickland and City Council, they had to sign the deal. You can’t discount (Memphis Greenspace. We got receipt of property and we’ve got to manage this thing. The night the statues came down was the beginning for us. We got legal challenges. Folks want to come and protest. Purportedly there are bodies buried, we’ve got to deal with that. And the respectful transfer, hopefully, of the bodies back to the original gravesites.

Van Turner Jr. at the last day of Kwanzaa celebration sponsored by Mid-South Kwanzaa, Inc. at the Panhellenic Bldg. at the U of M onJan. 1. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

My point here is that Umoja (unity) that we just studied, which is the first principle of Kwanzaa, this should unify us. I don’t want this to divide us. I don’t want folks on Facebook saying one group should get the credit and not the other. You know, the young activists are the ones that did it; the old activists are the ones that did it.

… How can the young activists know what to do without the Walter Baileys, D’Army Baileys and the LaSimba Grays. We all stand on their shoulders. I would hope that this would unify us and not divide us.

KAA: Let’s say that it was a unifying factor and we could look forward five years. What does a unified African-American community look like in Memphis? What would it be doing?

VTJ: We would – one – take back control of our communities. Self-determination – kujichagalia – is another principle of Kwanzaa. A unified African-American community means that no matter what ZipCode you happen to be born in, you have a quality life. It means you would have a fresh food market that is accessible. You would have adequate education, which would prepare you for the future.

You would have park spaces and green land and sidewalks where the kids can ride their bikes and the kids can play on the street without fear of violence. That’s a unified community. It means that in the community we have black businesses that are thriving. That’s not the case now. When we spend money in our communities we don’t spend with black-owned companies – for the most part – for your essentials. That means when you go grocery shop, when you go to the dry cleaners, when you go to the gas station, when you go to any number of the shops that are in our communities, we don’t own them.

A (unified African-American community) means being in a position where we own some of the economy or the commerce that’s happening in our community. You look at various other communities and the dollar turns in their communities multiple times before it leaves. That’s not the case with African Americans. I think we just need to get back to basics. …That’s what I think (a unified African-American) looks like. …That’s what we are all striving for.

KAA: A unified African-American community does not mean that you don’t hold governments responsible relative to government contracting and issues like that. It means you’re walking on two tracks, right?

VTJ: Right. I think that’s the case. You hate to king of bring it up in this way, but it is a fact that the lady (at the last day of Kwanzaa celebration) talked about that she grew up in a segregated community and all of the businesses were in her community and she couldn’t go out. …Integration had to happen. It was the right thing. But that didn’t mean leave your home base and let it go to chaos. They meant that you should be respected as a human being and have the right to do any of the other things any other human born in this world can do.

But that didn’t mean that you left what you built up to go do it. And unfortunately, when you look at our communities, that’s what’s happened. We’ve sacrificed home to go look at all these other places and in all these other communities thinking the water was sweeter and the grass is greener. And what have we given up?

KAA: Are you hopeful for the future that we talked about and what would be the basis for your hope.

VTJ: In each movement you see the potential. In the ’60s and the ’70s you saw a number of black is beautiful and loving yourself. The brothers came with the locks, afros and you were hopeful. We were for so long taught to hate ourselves and our skin color and hair and who we were. Black is beautiful came forth; and then for various reasons things were done to sort of stop that. But it made a dent in it.

Then you come to when I came up. I grew up in Whitehaven and attended Whitehaven High, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was required reading. You didn’t have a choice. This is what you had to read to graduate. At the same time, Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” was out. At the same time, KRS-One and Public Enemy was out. We had the black medallions on with the Africa in the middle. We had the hats on with the X. Those were my teenage years. That was hip hop. It wasn’t what you got now. You can say what you want to say about it; it is what it is. But what we listen to now is not KRS-One, it’s not Public Enemy. It’s not Digable Planets. They were sliding in knowledge and positivity. At the same time you were hearing the beat. They we’re talking about becoming a vegetarian and not eating pork, which to this day I don’t eat pork.

Then you had the whole neo-soul movement that happened when I was at Morehouse (College); Erykah Badu and the sisters with the head wraps and all that. That made a dent in it. Now you got Kendrick Lamar, you got J. Cole, you got some of the other young guys who got to get you by identifying with your existence. But then while I got you and I got your attention, I’m gonna slide something in.

The hands up don’t shoot. You saw J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar and a number of hip-hop artists involved in the Black Lives Matter protests. We saw athletes come on board. You got (Colin) Kaepernick. That gives it hope and that make another dent.

I think the goal is executing over a longer period of time; not just going in spurts. It spurts and it goes back… We’ve got to link it. The building blocks are there. We’ve just got to actualize it and link it. …

KAA: So you’re saying that progress is a planned process sustained over time? Is that right?

VTJ: That’s exactly right. We have a problem with the sustaining. We hit it and then five years from now where will Black Lives Matter be or the activists? Will they still be around? Will there still be a movement? Or will there be something else? I think that’s critical.