Irvine I. Turner: Politician Extraordinaire and Champion of Poor

Groups and Communities
Published February 19, 1998

Irvine I. Turner: Politician Extraordinaire and Champion of Poor

| Published February 19, 1998

Irvine I. Turner, who became the first elected black official from Newark in 1954, served three terms on the municipal council. The Newark Public Library

Irvine I. Turner was the first elected black official from Newark. A Newark native, he attended Barringer High School, St. Paul High School in Richmond, Va., and Lynchburg (Va.) Seminary and studied journalism at New York University.

Turner was circulation manager and advertising director of the New Jersey Guardian. Later, he was publisher and co-editor of the New Jersey Record. He entered the real estate business, and in 1941 was appointed a member of the Newark Fair Employment Practices Committee under Mayor Vincent Murphy. Also in 1941, Turner was appointed to a committee to study the creation of one-way streets in Newark under Public Safety Director John B. Keenan. Under the old commission form of government, he ran unsuccessfully for commissioner in 1949 and 1953.

With the changeover to a mayor and council form of government in 1954, he was elected to the Municipal Council that year and again in 1958, 1962 and 1966. He was defeated in 1970 by political newcomer Dennis Westbrooks, who served one four-year term. Before 1954 there was a different alignment of the ward system. Instead of 16 small units under the commission form, there were just five under the mayor and council setup, each with nearly 80,000 people—a larger population than most of the state's municipalities. Early in his career, Turner was associated with Rep. Hugh Addonizio, as home secretary for the 11th District congressman. Soon he himself became a powerful figure in the city's emerging black political community, for he had the power to appoint. With that power, came strength. Dr. Robert Curvin's dissertation, 'The Persistent Minority: The Black Political Experience in Newark,' is the finest study of Turner. In it, Curvin describes him as a 'fiery pro-black and flamboyant personality.' By the time the mayor-council form of government came into in operation '(Turner) was clearly the most powerful and best-known black man in Newark, and one of Newark's most colorful politicians until his defeat in 1970,' Curvin wrote.

Delivering the vote

The councilman's ability to deliver the ghetto vote through militant rhetoric to politicians and/or their machines cemented his importance throughout the Central Ward. It also brought recognition from outside its boundaries. Curvin compares Kenneth Clark's assessment of Adam Clayton Powell in neighboring New York City to Turner here in Newark's Central Ward, saying that 'in terms of the massive pathology of the ghetto, where a powerless people seek a concrete hero who will fight the battles they cannot fight for themselves,' in 'the poor, previously disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the often forgotten, the overlooked, and the ignored now had a poweful champion.' His name was Irvine I. Turner. Councilman Turner's 16 years on the Newark Municipal Council were action-filled, tempered only by ill health. In the 1960s he suffered a series of strokes. During his early career, Turner was allied with former Mayor Meyer Ellenstein. Soon after he switched to Ralph A. Villani, a subsequent mayor. But it was his association with Addonizio that brought him real power and eventually into conflict with former Mayor Leo Carlin, Addonizio's political foe.

During Turner's council days, the press was filled with hundreds of articles describing his career. To summarize his rich political character, and evaluate the huge number of clippings on him, Turner's life can be divided into parts: articles about black appointments to important positions, and general articles describing his attention to the Central Ward and Newark in the 1960s. Other areas that should be investigated by the more vigorous Turner watchers include his political alliances and feuds, law and legislation introduced or influenced by him, and a fresh evaluation of the new society he helped to mold in the fifth and sixth decades of the present century in Newark.

A positive image

Turner felt it was essential to change the negative image of black Newark. For him, it was imperative to get Negroes into positions of power as quickly as possible and on all levels of government. In August 1961 he called upon the Democratic Committee of the Central Ward to name a Negro in Essex County as a Democratic candidate for freeholder. That November he chided the Newark Municipal Council to appoint a fifth magistrate of African-American heritage to the Newark Municipal Court. That same month he called upon Gov. Richard J. Hughes to appoint more black judges. The following month he suggested that the Democratic Party nominate a Negro for the 11th District seat in Congress. In July 1962 he expressed his disappointment at the governor for not having appointed a single black to his cabinet, and in October he endorsed Noah W. Marshall, who was black, as a candidate for assemblyman from Essex County on the Democratic ticket. In 1964 Turner urged the appointment of Theodore P. Pettigrew as assistant postmaster in Newark to fill the vacancy caused by the death of George A. Reilley. Pettigrew was a member of the Newark Housing Authority. Turner believe Pettigrew's appointment as a black could 'serve as a goal for other Negroes preparing for government service . . . ( that) such an appointment would boost the morale of Negroes in Newark.' In March 1963, he asked Essex County Democratic Chairman Dennis F. Carey to help him seek appointment of Negro clergymen to ministerial offices in state institutions. Turner said, 'I have noticed that Negro men of the cloth have received no patronage in any of our institutions such as penal, mental or medical throughout this state.'

In 1964, he pushed employment of more African-Americans for construction jobs on the East-West Freeway (Route 280), wanted candidates for the Newark welfare director to be screened by a local civil service commission and local assistance board, and urged the county sheriff to appoint a Negro as undersheriff of Essex. He also met with local builders and labor union leaders in an effort to achieve fair labor practices in construction. In September, Turner asked Addonizio, then the mayor, to appoint a Negro to the post of executive director for the Newark Human Rights Commission. He also suggested that the governor appoint Judge Roger Yancey to the next vacancy of the New Jersey Supreme Court. In 1965 Turner reiterated his stand that 'a Negro should be appointed to the Newark Human Rights Commission.' The following year he demanded the establishment of a police review board, asked that an African-American be appointed to the Rutgers Board of Governors, and called upon the Essex County Democratic chairman to use his influence 'in having a Negro appointed warden of the Essex County penitentiary.' In 1968 Turner asked the mayor to appoint a black attorney as co-counsel for the Newark Board of Education.

Political clout

Turner's recommendations often went past city hall, the court house and or even the State House, all the way to Washington's Capitol Hill and the president. In early 1961 he recommended the re-election of Gov. Robert Meyner, who had supported President John F. Kennedy's civil rights efforts. In June 1961, he wrote Kennedy, urging that federal taxes be turned over to the state to help finance school construction and increased teacher salaries. Turner urged a revival of depression-era agencies such as a new Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) 'so that our youth will be forced to work instead of nurturing crime, dope addiction and dope peddling.' During the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, he urged 'the appointment of a Negro to the United States Supreme Court when a vacancy occurs.' In February of the same year he asked Johnson to 'use his influence in getting Congress to let the City of Newark have $50 million in order to give the city a new start.' In 1965 he wrote to former President Harry S. Truman, 'stating that he was hurt by remarks by Truman in calling the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King a 'troublemaker.' Then, he turned to Johnson, asking him to make King a negotiator in the Vietnam conflict.

To imply that Turner was interested only in helping African-American constituents would be inaccurate. His legislative record shows that he fought hard for his ward and for the city, too. In January 1961, he asked that the city surplus be used to 'hold down the tax rate,' criticized the use of the old McKinley School building to fill the needs of Robert Treat Junior High School, and declared that garden-style housing should be the goal of urban renewal projects in the Central and South wards. Turner wanted greater emphasis placed on the teaching of 'Negro history in the schools.' He also recommended a $400 increase for all city employees to match one given firemen and police officers. In 1962, he worried over increased demolition in the city's lower Clinton Hill area for a renewal project. That December he appealed to tavern owners to provide Christmas baskets for the needy and senior citizens. In August 1963, he urged the federal government to examine Newark's critical unemployment situation. Later in the year he reissued an appeal to federal labor authorities to look into Newark's 'critical labor situation.' In February 1964, Turner discussed the possibility of a rent strike in Newark, opposed the building of a golf course at Weequahic Park at the expense of providing amusement facilities for children, and charged that the Neighborhood Youth Corps had unjustly barred jobs in the city's anti-poverty program to some because of police records. Turner also complained that his Ward was lagging behind in outside street lighting and paving, saying 'there is hardly a street in the entire ward which is safe enough for citizens to travel.' Turner was especially outspoken when he urged Gov. Hughes to either renegotiate the lease between Newark and the Port Authority or break the pact for the lease of the airport and seaport. He felt Newark was not being properly reimbursed in rent for its transportation real estate center. That August he introduced an ordinance to restore rent control and asked better supervision of elevators in multi-dwelling city buildings to prevent child-related accidents. In October, he agreed to support an investigation of the city's anti-poverty program.

Time and space do not allow for a complete assessment of Turner's 16-year career, for this is simply a sampling of a few years in his busy public life. His was a career that brought great honor and respect as well as an indictment, years of public service, serving as state boxing commissioner, power banking and power brokering, and unbelievable political skill. Few people have made an impact on Newark like the man for whom Irvine I. Turner Boulevard is named.