E.B. Turner: One of a kind

First Posted: 1/15/2009

It was never to E.B. Turner’s political advantage to appear cozy with The Robesonian, so he was careful never to leave that impression. He preferred to label us a racist newspaper, one that didn’t care about the plight of blacks — and he seldom passed on an opportunity to remind us of his contempt, with the outburst often coming before an audience.
We tried to disabuse him of that notion, and it was during one of those conversations that we pledged to Turner that when the sad day arrived, The Robesonian would bid him farewell with a Page 1A story highlighting his contributions and a Page 4A Our View thanking him for the same.
Turner, whose ego matched his 6-foot, 6-inch frame, for a moment seemed pleased, but then dismissed us, saying we would never write a kind word. On Tuesday, we dutifully fulfilled the first part of our promise by delivering the kind words of others.
Love him or hate him, there is no denying the huge footprint that the Rev. Eugene Burns “E.B.” Turner, who died on Sunday at age 84, left on Robeson County in general, and his adopted hometown of Lumberton in particular. He was among the handful of the most influential people in this county during the second part of the 20th century.
Fresh from divinity school, Turner arrived in Lumberton in 1948 with a plan of doing a drive-thru on the way to a much bigger church and congregation somewhere up north. But, as he recounted in a 2006 interview with this newspaper that followed his retirement after more than 40 years as a city councilman and county commissioner, Turner was appalled by what he saw of South Lumberton from his pulpit at First Baptist Church, conditions that were Third World-ish.
Turner faced a fork in the road, and parked the car. He figured the best way to fix the system was to be a part of it, so he ran for City Council, won, and in 1962 took a seat — as he liked to say — in the “back room,” where political sausage is ground.
It was the dawn of the Great Society, and Turner was a quick study, helping to garner millions of dollars of federal money that didn’t fix South Lumberton, but did bring a fresh coat of paint.
Perhaps Turner’s greatest favor came in the mid- to late 1960s, when the South was belatedly getting around to complying with the 1954 Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and buses were taking students across town to integrated schools. Turner, his pockets stuffed with political capital, was able to keep the fuse from being lit —and the peaceful transition in tri-racial Lumberton and Robeson County was the envy of others.
Turner’s political stature continued to grow during the following 35 years as he became a politician whose approval was not only sought, but was needed. During this time, we are unaware of Turner ever trying to parlay his politic prowess into pecuniary gain, which distinguished him from most politicians then and now.
His retirement in 2004 left a political vacuum in the black community, and while others have reached for the reins, the power is no longer consolidated. We don’t make the case that is a bad thing, but it once again underscores Turner’s long shadow over Lumberton and Robeson County’s political machinery.
Turner’s death on Sunday allows us to once again celebrate his life of service, one that was devoted to the downtrodden, for whom he was able to win a little more. And it gives us a final chance to fulfill the second part of our pledge to Dr. Turner by offering our heartfelt thanks.

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