If you think that one man can’t make a difference, you haven’t met Rev. Jesse Turner. A trailblazer, community activist, civil rights champion, and historian, Rev. Turner has devoted his career to making life better for African Americans in Pine Bluff and beyond.
How do you improve a community? For African Americans in Pine Bluff who might be asked this question, Rev. Jesse Turner would eventually come up in the conversation. Rev. Turner has done more than just about anyone else to dismantle obstacles and make things better.
Rev. Turner sees himself as a trailblazer and historian. “Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in Pine Bluff, I always wanted to be in a position to help other people especially black people,” he said. “I noticed how they were treated. I saw how they were always struggling to have nice homes, good jobs, and cars. When my mother took me downtown to the department store, she had to drink from a different water fountain than the white people. My hope was to one day get the opportunity to change things.”
That’s exactly what he did. Today, Rev. Turner is a force of change, a prime mover of progress. His main vocation is serving as pastor of the oldest African American Baptist Church in Arkansas, but that’s not all he does. Not by a long shot. He is also the executive director of Pine Bluff Interested Citizens for Voter Registration, Inc. and the Faith Chairman for the Advisory Committee on Faith and Justice. He was recently honored by Arkansas Forth District Congressman Bruce Westerman when he shared his work of advancing African American History in 2020 during the 116th United States Congress. “I want my work to be representative of all people, particularly, the African Americans in Pine Bluff,” Rev. Turner explained. “Helping people brings me great joy, and I give the Almighty God/YHWH all the glory.”
Rev. Turner has been a tireless advocate for civil rights, with his own experience a primary motivator. In 1968 he was the first African American electrician apprentice and, in 1972, he became the first African American journeyman electrician in the history of the Cotton Belt Railroad. In 1975, his efforts to end racial discrimination at the Cotton Belt Railroad resulted in African Americans being promoted to leadership positions, the removal of segregated lunchrooms, and the elimination of segregated facilities.
His relentless desire to make life better has resulted in many firsts, honors, and recognitions. Rev. Turner was the force behind efforts to name a portion of Interstate 530 in Pine Bluff to honor the late Civil Rights attorney Wiley Branton, Sr. Rev. Turner’s community activism became the catalyst for the development of a journalism program, a radio station, and a television station on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He was the first African American to participate in two consecutive Pine Bluff mayoral run-off elections, in 1984 and 1988. During the mayoral race in 1988, vandals broke out the windows in his home, painted swastikas on his vehicle, and delivered death threats. It didn’t stop him.
Rev. Turner’s influence wasn’t limited to Pine Bluff. In 1990, he became the first African American in the history of the Republican Party of Arkansas to run and win a State Senate primary election. He was the first African American in Pine Bluff to receive letters from four U.S. Presidents, along with two Presidential Proclamations. He has been recognized by the Arkansas Mosaic Templars Culture Center for his outstanding community service work. The Arkansas Education Association Humanitarian Award, the first Pine Bluff Branch NAACP Dove Award for Civil Rights, the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice Mary Church Terrall Award for civil and voting rights, and the first CARES National Mentoring Movement "Way Shower Award" are just a few of the many honors he has received. The list could go on and on.
What does Rev. Turner have to say about this? “God has been the driver of it all, placing people in my path to help,” he said with his usual humility. “God used me to bring lasting change to our city. While some have tried and gave up, I did not. Others failed to ask or seek change. I did, and the results made history.”
Image Credit: Pine Bluff Commercial