The story of Mary Turner is one for the ages and it’s also a reminder of the kinds of struggles that people of color have endured since this nation was founded. Mary was born in 1899 and died on May 19, 1918, exactly seven years before the birthday of the great Malcolm X.
What happened to Mary in Georgia is a powerful reflection of the environment in which Malcolm X was born, and shows the necessity of the work of the great black leader. Turner was lynched in Valdosta, Georgia by an angry mob after she publicly denounced the killing her of husband. She wasn’t just killed: The pregnant woman was hung upside down and burned alive and had the child removed from her body.
A 31-year old white plantation owner by the name of Hampton Smith, a man known for abusing his workers, was shot and killed by a black employee by the name of Sidney Johnson. Because none of the free African Americans had wanted to work for the abusive employer, he used convict labor to run his farm. Johnson was one of those men that was forced to work on the man’s farm against his will – The United States Constitution says that slavery, to this day, remains legal for those who’ve been convicted of a crime.
After going through several beatings at the hands of Smith, Johnson grew tired of it. The tipping point for him was when he was badly beaten for not working because he was sick. That’s what led to Smith getting what he deserved from Johnson.
Smith also had a bad history with Mary Turner and her husband Hayes. Hayes was sentenced to a chain gang for threatening Smith and telling him that he could no longer beat his wife, who worked for Smith at the time.
After Smith was killed, there was a weeklong manhunt, which led to the deaths of 13 people. One of the men killed was Hayes Turner, Mary’s husband. The mob took Hayes out of custody and lynched him, even though his wife was eight months pregnant and told the mob that her husband had nothing to do with Smith’s murder.
After hearing Mary threaten to have the mob arrested, they decided to “teach her a lesson.” The woman tried to run away, but the mob caught her and brought her back. They then tied by her by the ankles, hung her from a tree, covered her with gasoline and set her on fire.
While she was alive, the mob cut the woman’s stomach open with a knife. Her baby fell to the ground, crying and the mob stomped on the child’s head and crushed it.
Over 500 black people left the area after the lynching, despite being threatened with death for choosing to leave.
The press in the north got word of the lynching and many white newspapers chose not to mention her pregnancy, while the black press mentioned it repeatedly. The Associated Press even audaciously wrote that Mary Turner made “unwise remarks” about the execution of her husband, and that “the people, in their indignant mood, took exception to her remarks, as well as her attitude.”
Despite the fact that the governor of Georgia, Hugh Dorsey did an investigation of Mary’s murder, no one was tried or ever convicted in the killing.
Turner’s death may have been an awakening, since Malcolm X was born on May 19, the same day that Turner died, but seven years later. Malcolm would go on to become one of the greatest and most neccesary black leaders in American history. Mary Turner was one of his inspirations, leading him on a lifelong mission for black empowerment, self-defense and equality. Malcolm would spend his life speaking up for the Mary Turners of America and we must continue to do so today.