Duke theologian William Turner Jr., a 1966 football walk-on, invokes MLK's vision

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJanuary 20, 2013 

Deploying a richly cadenced baritone like a modern shofar, William Turner Jr.’s fiery sermon Sunday brought a cheering crowd of 800 to its feet at Duke University’s annual commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Turner, who helped integrate Duke’s football squad in 1966, spoke on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Duke’s campus integration, a historical transformation that the university will mark throughout the year with events and exhibitions.

Most among the Duke Chapel audience didn’t know that Turner was holding back during his address about personal struggles that mirrored those of black America during that era. After he got his degree in engineering and a doctorate in religion from Duke, Turner remained on campus as theology professor, specializing in preaching.

Turner privately shared some of his personal memories last week, however, after he finished teaching a class. In a cathartic mood, he recalled players, teachers and coaches who were downright nasty to him, and tensions on the practice field and in the weight room nearly coming to blows.

Nagging him to this day is the knee injury he sustained in practice that required major reconstructive surgery. Was it an accident, or was it a dirty tackle intended to re-segregate the team?

“I have reason to wonder in retrospect whether or not something like that occurred,” he said.

Turner’s public keynote address Sunday swept the historical arc of the nation as the tumultuous events of the civil rights struggle played out on the Durham campus. Turner ascended to the chapel pulpit after celebrations of dance, music and chorale works and other speeches.

In a crescendo of images blending the 1960s and the Old Testament, Turner mentioned several campus incidents in which he felt threatened with physical violence, but did not dwell on the near-daily personal slights he endured. Instead, he spoke more broadly of those who benefited from the civil rights movement and those who were left battered and broken by the social upheaval.

Turner noted that in the 1960s even some faculty and students at Duke were becoming embarrassed by the private university’s sluggish response to the civil rights movement that was pricking the moral conscience of the nation. Eventually social unrest arrived at Duke’s campus with a vigil in 1968 for better treatment of black employees and a 1969 student takeover of the Allen Building to pressure the university to open its academic canon to African studies.

Turner chided his employer, saying there is still room for improvement at Duke when it comes to increasing minority representation on the faculty, administration and student body.

“There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land, but you’ve got to proceed,” Turner exhorted the chapel audience. “I can see a glorious day if we proceed.”

Turner’s life at Duke began as a football walk-on from Richmond, Va. A defensive back for Duke, Turner was one of the first two blacks on the team. But for a time he was the only black player because the other member left the team.

Turner wasn’t on Duke’s starting team and did not make the traveling team. His activities were largely limited to practice. When reached by phone last week, then-coach Tom Harp and Page Wilson, a fullback, couldn’t remember him.

But Turner made a strong impression on place kicker Robert Riesenfeld, now a retired physician in Berkeley, Calif. “There was a solid aspect to him that demonstrated conviction, confidence and presence,” Riesenfeld said.

Riesenfeld and quarterback Al Woodall, who went on to the New York Jets and played behind Joe Namath, don’t recall racial tensions on the team.

But Turner said the antagonism toward him was rampant and required constant vigilance, like modern-day bullying. He called his physical presence an affront to the myth of racial supremacy then widely held in American society.

Some of Turner’s warmest memories were of being befriended by Duke’s cleaning crew and cooking staff, the regular folk who lived in Durham neighborhoods and invited him into their homes for dinner and to their churches for worship.

Also unforgettable were the white players and trainers who could look past his skin color and treat him with genuine dignity.

“They treated you like a human being,” Turner said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service