A few years ago I was standing in the checkout line at what is now the Piggly Wiggly on 13th Street in Columbus. That store is a melting pot for some of the wealthiest people in our community and some of the poorest.
The items on the shelves cater to both markets.
At the head of the line that day was an elderly woman. She had ham hocks, greens and some snuff, if memory serves me. She was on public assistance and you could tell it by the method she was using to pay for the food.
Behind her was Bill Turner, a man of great wealth but no pretense. He was on the Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest people in the country. I don't remember everything in Turner’s basket, but it was a milk and bread run.
That moment, burned into my memory years ago, is something I’ve been thinking about this week as our community said farewell to William Bradley Turner, an heir to the W.C. Bradley fortune and the driving force for civic change in Columbus over the last half century.
He lived here, working every day to make this a better place for all of us who live here. And he did.
While reporting on Turner’s death at 94 — we should all live such a full life — I was given a copy of a speech he gave on March 26, 1992. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the Metro Columbus Urban League, an organization he helped establish in the height of the city’s racial tensions.
The text of that speech is remarkable, not just because of Turner’s deep understanding of race relations in this community and nation, but because of what he saw coming a quarter century ago. The word most used by those remembering him in the last week has been “vision.”
You can see the vision in the speech, but it was also blunt in its assessment of where we were and where we were going as a nation.
The words Turner spoke in 1992 border on prophesy. He tackled head-on his opinion of the difference between dissent, diversity and divisiveness.
“Unfortunately, there are people and groups who exploit our diversity for personal gain and power,” Turner said. “They blame rather than boost, sow discord rather than seek solutions, lash out rather than listen, and criticize rather than create. Now, I know it is human nature to blame others for the predicaments we are in, but if you view yourself as a victim, there must be a villain.”
Think about that: “If you view yourself as a victim, there must be a villain.”
That is exactly where we are as a country in the summer of 2017: people see victims and villains.
Now, remember this was 25 years ago, months before Bill Clinton was elected president. This was two years before Newt Gingrich took control of Congress. It was long before Donald Trump became president. This was before we were all in the political and economic corners we are in today.
“Dissent and diversity are healthy and necessary if we are to change, but divisiveness is deadly because it immobilizes an entire community,” Turner continued. “It shifts the focus from reaching goals to focus on winning. It shifts the focus on being right rather than doing right.”
If you look where we find ourselves today, locally, on the state level and nationally, being right has become the most important aspect of our societal debate. People look at each other as right or wrong with very little middle ground.
Here’s the part of Turner’s speech that night that leaves me and others I have shared it with shaking their heads.
“Our country is well on the way to becoming the most diverse society the world has ever known and there is nothing we can do to stop it,” Turner said. “Diversity can be our greatest asset and create a country greater than any of our dreams or it can bring us to our knees and a large part of the world along with us.
“We have a choice, we can use our diversity to create a better world economically, socially, politically and spiritually, or we can let our differences destroy us. I shudder to think what our country would be like if our leadership is elected by the malcontents, the morally empty and the illiterates that are so abundant today. Unfortunately, there are too many people in our country today who view truth as a matter of opinion and morals as a matter of choice.”
Take a few seconds to digest that, would you? The way you swallow it will likely depend on your political persuasion.
Our divisions, which threaten the core of our society, are nothing new, as Bill Turner’s words many years ago illustrate.
That night, Turner talked about education and children as the ways to solve the developing problems.
“Education of the head is not enough without education of the heart,” he said. “The best education in the world would not succeed if we don’t build value, character and morals and self-esteem in our children. Self-esteem comes from being loved and knowing what unites us as well as what separates us, and knowing that we are all children of God.”