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Alabama minister helps Tulsa church, city confront painful past

Josh Moon

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Rev. Robert Turner had just finished a talk with God — a talk in which he promised God that he would be more attentive and more responsive to the prodding that God might send his way — when his cell phone buzzed with an incoming text message. 

It was God. 

Or, well, at least in Turner’s mind, it was God. And He had a new pathway for Turner’s life — one that he never envisioned. One that would take him far away from his comfort zone and his home in Alabama. One that would thrust him into a fractured city brimming with racial tension and the site of the country’s worst race riot. 

The text message originated not from the Almighty, but instead from a church bishop in Tulsa, OK. He wanted Turner to come lead the 100-plus-year-old Vernon AME Church in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa. 

Turner knew nothing of Tulsa, nothing of the Vernon AME church and nothing of the city’s painful history and troubled present. But he did know that he had just made a promise to God. 

“What do you say at that point?” Turner asks, laughing. “I said the only thing I could say: I accept. I didn’t know the salary. I didn’t know the name of the church. I didn’t know anything about the place. And I hadn’t even asked my wife about it.”

It has certainly worked out as if a higher power arranged it. 

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Last year, Turner was named “Tulsan of the Year” by the Tulsa World newspaper. He has become a fixture around town, and one of the most widely known and respected men in Tulsa. And he has helped establish Vernon AME as a center point in the town’s reckoning over its ugly racial history. 

“For an Alabama boy, they’re treating me pretty well,” Turner joked. “Honestly, it’s been like a dream. From the moment I got here, I knew I came here for a reason. It just felt right and good.”

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Turner and his church have been, and will likely continue to be, a focal point this weekend, as President Trump holds a rally in the town. That rally, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a day after the Juneteenth holiday (it was originally scheduled on that day), has been widely criticized, including by Turner. 

In a recent interview on MSNBC, Turner said he was “disgusted” that Trump chose his city on that historic holiday (his comments came before the rally date was changed) to relaunch his campaign. “I believe he cares more about black votes than he does about black people,” Turner said. 

The politics of it all isn’t lost on Turner, nor is he novice in that field. Prior to going into ministry, Turner was a well-known figure in Alabama political circles. 

Born on the campus of Tuskegee, Turner said he was raised in the New South and Alabama Democratic Conference. He graduated from the University of Alabama with a political science degree, interned for Sen. Richard Shelby and Alabama Supreme Court Justice Harold See and worked with the Alabama Education Association. 

In 2005, he was enrolled in law school at Alabama when he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was supposed to do something else. He dropped out and went on a mission trip to Africa. Turner said he knew immediately that he had found his calling. 

Over the course of the next several years, Turner would earn his masters of divinity and doctorate of ministry and go on to lead five other churches in Alabama prior to the call from Tulsa. 

“Like with the text message from the bishop that night, I’ve had these moments in my life where I felt an incredible pull to go down a certain pathway,” Turner said. “Leaving law school was one of the toughest decisions of my life, but I knew quickly that it was the right thing. The same is true here in Tulsa.”

While Turner’s success in Tulsa is obvious now, it wasn’t exactly an easy path. Almost 100 years removed from the Tulsa race riots — or “massacre,” as Turner more accurately refers to it — the city is still very much scarred and broken. Old resentments remain, and Turner believes it will take massive concessions to ever repair them. 

Given that past, it’s not hard to understand why. 

Tulsa was once the African-American mecca of the United States. In the Greenwood community, where Turner’s Vernon AME Church stands, black businesses thrived — so much so that the area was dubbed “Black Wall Street.” 

In the early 1900s, black men and women in Tulsa were every bit as wealthy as white people, and in many cases were more so. Six different black families in the city owned their own airplanes. Jobs were plentiful, housing was affordable and the citizens of Greenwood were happy and content. 

Then the Tulsa Tribune reported that a black man had attempted to rape a white woman. An angry mob formed. And the terror began. 

For three days, whites in Tulsa burned businesses and houses. They destroyed any semblance of a community. More than 300 people were killed. More than 800 were injured. And at least 35 city blocks were burned to the ground. And the Black Wall Street was killed. 

It is a story that has been whitewashed from many American history books. It is not taught in most schools. And because of those omissions, the story sounds like an exaggerated tale of misery that can’t possibly be true. 

Yet, it is. A commission formed in 2001 examined the events closely and released a detailed report. Those details are horrific. 

“It was a massacre,” Turner said. “Innocent women and children and babies were murdered in their homes. For no reason.” 

That commission report also made a number of recommendations — most controversial among them was the idea of reparations paid by the city to the victims’ families. That recommendation was based on the fact that city officials, operating in their official capacity, actively participated in the riots. 

Turner has latched onto that report, and the idea of reparations, and has become a thorn in city leaders’ sides. Each Wednesday, prior to city council meetings, Turner takes a bullhorn and stands on the steps of city hall, where he preaches and excoriates those who he feels are blocking the progress. He has met with city officials and pushed to get the commission’s recommendations implemented, and he has attracted national attention for doing so.

His passion and his unwavering dedication to the cause have endeared him to the church and much of the town. And Vernon AME, under Turner’s leadership, has become a leader in the town, as well. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as businesses all around the church began to close, Turner made the decision to offer meals to anyone who needed a meal. He had no plan, no budget and no idea how — or even if — any of it would work. 

“We hoped to feed about 50 people, if we could. That’s all our limited budget could manage,” Turner said. 

To date, they’ve fed nearly 50,000 people. 

“It’s just … crazy,” Turner said. “There’s no business plan for this. There’s no way we thought we could ever do that much. We’re not set up for it. But never doubt God.”

While Turner seems to have made a home in Tulsa, the Alabama in him hasn’t been completely neutralized, particularly when it comes to football and barbecue. The UA grad took some real heat when his beloved Crimson Tide throttled Oklahoma in the 2018 Orange Bowl. And once you’ve had Archibald’s or the original Dreamland, well, nothing else is really barbecue. 

But he’s adjusting. 

“I was called here for a reason — I know that,” Turner said. “There was a plan for me here. When the text came through that night, it might as well have been God.”

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Courts

Lilly Ledbetter speaks about her friendship with Ginsburg

Micah Danney

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Lilly Ledbetter spoke during a virtual campaign event with Sen. Doug Jones on Sept. 21.

When anti-pay-discrimination icon and activist Lilly Ledbetter started receiving mail from late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ledbetter’s attorney told her to save the envelopes. That’s how unusual it is to get personal mail from a member of the nation’s highest court.

Ledbetter, 82, of Jacksonville, Alabama, shared her memories of her contact with Ginsburg over the last decade during a Facebook live event hosted by Sen. Doug Jones on Monday.

Ginsburg famously read her dissent from the bench, a rare occurrence, in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. decision in 2007. The court ruled 5-4 to affirm a lower court’s decision that Ledbetter was not owed damages for pay discrimination because her suit was not filed within 180 days of the setting of the policy that led to her paychecks being less than those of her male colleagues. 

Ledbetter said that Ginsburg “gave me the dignity” of publicly affirming the righteousness of Ledbetter’s case, demonstrating an attention to the details of the suit.

Ginsburg challenged Congress to take action to prevent similar plaintiffs from being denied compensation due to a statute of limitations that can run out before an employee discovers they are being discriminated against. 

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President Barack Obama. It resets the statute of limitation’s clock with each paycheck that is reduced by a discriminatory policy.

Ledbetter said that her heart was heavy when she learned of Ginsburg’s death on Friday. The women kept in touch after they met in 2010. That was shortly after the death of Ginsburg’s husband, tax attorney Marty Ginsburg. She spoke about her pain to Ledbetter, whose husband Charles had died two years before.

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“So we both shared that, and we shared a tear,” said Ledbetter.

Ginsburg invited her to her Supreme Court chambers to see a framed copy of the act, next to which hung a pen that Obama used to sign it.

Ginsburg later sent Ledbetter a signed copy of a cookbook honoring her husband that was published by the Supreme Court Historical Society. Included with it was a personal note, as was the case with other pieces of correspondence from the justice that Ledbetter received at her home in Alabama. They were often brochures and other written materials that Ginsburg received that featured photos of both women.

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Ledbetter expressed her support for Jones in his race against GOP challenger Tommy Tuberville. The filling of Ginsburg’s seat is a major factor in that, she said.

“I do have to talk from my heart, because I am scared to death for the few years that I have yet to live because this country is not headed in the right direction,” she said.

She noted that Ginsburg was 60 when she was appointed to the court. Ledbetter said that she opposes any nominee who is younger than 55 because they would not have the experience and breadth of legal knowledge required to properly serve on the Supreme Court.

She said that issues like hers have long-term consequences that are made even more evident by the financial strains resulting from the pandemic, as she would have more retirement savings had she been paid what her male colleagues were.

Jones called Ledbetter a friend and hero of his.

“I’ve been saying to folks lately, if those folks at Goodyear had only done the right thing by Lilly Ledbetter and the women that worked there, maybe they’d still be operating in Gadsden these days,” he said.

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National

Census report: Number of uninsured in U.S. increased in 2019

Eddie Burkhalter

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(VIA CENSUS BUREAU)

The number of uninsured in America rose in pre-COVID-19 pandemic 2019, for the third straight year, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released last week.

The bureau’s “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2019” report notes that while the median household income in 2019, increased 6.8 percent from the prior year, and the poverty rate fell by 1.3 percentage points during that time, the uninsured rate in the U.S. increased by 0.3 percent from 2018 to 2019, and the number of children without insurance in the U.S. increased by about 320,000 during that time.

The only state to have increased the number of insured residents between 2018 and 2019, was Virginia, which effective Jan. 1 2019, had expanded Medicaid in the state under the Affordable Care Act.

The report notes that while the percent of uninsured in Alabama fell from 10 percent in 2018, to 9.7 percent in 2019, the rate of uninsured in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, which includes Alabama, was twice as high as rates in states that had expanded the federal program.

“The devil is in the details, and the details reveal Alabama’s failure to expand Medicaid has caused more poverty, hardship and uninsurance,” said Jane Adams, campaign director of the Cover Alabama Coalition, in a statement. “It’s shameful that Alabama has such a high uninsurance rate. It does not have to be this way. Governor Ivey could expand Medicaid today and provide an estimated 340,000 Alabamians with access to health insurance.”

The Cover Alabama Coalition is a group of more than 60 advocacy organizations that formed in April to urge Gov. Kay Ivey to expand Medicaid. Alabama is one of 14 states that hasn’t expanded the program.

Children living in the South were more likely to be uninsured than children living in other regions, Cover Alabama Coalition noted in a press release on the bureau’s recent report. Nearly eight percent of children in the South are uninsured, while just three percent of children in the Northeast lack health insurance, according to the report.

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“Due to COVID-19, the United States has endured the deepest recession since the Great Depression, fundamentally changing the country’s economic landscape,” the coalition noted in the release. “The economic fallout from COVID-19 will result in more poverty, uninsurance and debt. Medicaid expansion would help by generating nearly $3 billion a year in new economic activity throughout the state and creating an additional 30,000 jobs.”

Approximately 64 percent of Alabamians polled said they support expanding Medicaid in Alabama, including 52 percent of Republicans asked, according to a recent Auburn University at Montgomery poll.

While the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data showed some gains from the previous year, the COVID-19 pandemic that came afterward had a clear impact on poverty and the number of uninsured.

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A study in July by Families USA, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan health care consumer advocacy nonprofit, found that 5.4 million workers lost health insurance in the U.S. between February and May of this year. The increase in uninsured was 39 percent higher than in any other annual increase on record.

A separate study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in July estimates that in the last three quarters of this year, 10.1 million in the U.S. will lose their employer-sponsored health care.

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Congress

Rogers disappointed Democrats have not offered a Homeland Security reauthorization

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Mike Rogers (VIA CSPAN)

Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, wrote an editorial in the Washington Examiner saying that he is disappointed but not surprised that Democrats have yet to offer a reauthorization package for the Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s been over 1,100 days since the last Department of Homeland Security authorization bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Rogers said. “And as we approach the end of the 116th Congress, the chances grow thin of the majority introducing legislation to provide the Department of Homeland Security with the resources and authorities it needs to stop the growing threats to our homeland.”

“I wish I could say I’m surprised Democrats have yet to offer a reauthorization package,” Rogers wrote. “However, this is the party that started out this Congress with calls to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

Rogers slammed House Democrats for what he claimed is a trend of becoming increasingly anti-law enforcement and ignoring “violent mobs” that have been rioting in many major cities.

“This is the party that last year called the unprecedented migrant surge at the Southwest border a ‘Fake Emergency,’ and took half a year to vote on critical humanitarian funding to address the crisis,” Rogers said. “This is the party that turned a blind eye as violent mobs took over cities across our country. It’s reached the point that now some on the left are calling for the abolition of DHS and the defunding of our police.”

Rogers said that while Democrats have done nothing, House Republicans have introduced a two-year reauthorization bill in The Keep America Secure Act.

Rogers said that The Keep America Secure Act will provide DHS with the resources and authorities that the department needs to stay ahead of evolving threats and position DHS to be successful on new battlegrounds.

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Rogers is the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee and a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee

Rogers represents Alabama’s 3rd Congressional District. He is seeking his tenth term in the U.S. House of Representatives in this Nov. 3’s general election. Adia Winfrey is the Democratic challenger.

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Health

Alabama has fourth highest rate of coronavirus cases

Alabama has the fourth-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, trailing only fellow Southern states Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama has the fourth-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, trailing only fellow Southern states Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi.

Alabama has so far recorded at least 29,896 cases per million people, which amounts to 2.9 percent, nearly 3 percent, of the people in Alabama.

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday reported that 818 more Alabamians have tested positive for the coronavirus. This takes our state up to 145,780 diagnosed cases. At least 61,232 Alabamians have recovered from the virus.

But 82,109 Alabamians have active coronavirus cases. This is the ninth-highest raw total in the nation, trailing only Florida, California, Georgia, Arizona, Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Texas — all states with higher populations than Alabama.

Alabama’s high rate of infection is not due to the state doing more testing. ADPH announced 5,500 more tests on Monday, taking the state up to 1,059,517 total tests.

Alabama is 40th in the nation in coronavirus testing.

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Tests as a percentage of the state’s population is just 22.8 percent. Louisiana on the other hand has 47 percent — the fifth highest rate of testing in the nation. Even Mississippi, at 26.4 percent, is testing at a higher rate than Alabama and are 29th in testing. Florida is 37th.

On Monday, ADPH reported two more Alabamians have died from COVID-19, taking the state death toll to 2,439. Alabama is 21st in death rate from COVID-19 at almost .05 percent.

New Jersey has had the highest COVID-19 death rate at .18 percent of the population. At least 257 Alabamians have died in September, though, to this point, September deaths are trailing both August and July deaths. At least 602 Alabamians died from COVID-19 in August.

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Hospitalizations from COVID-19 are also down. 780 Alabamians were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, down to levels not seen since before the July 4 holiday. At least 1,613 Alabamians were in the hospital suffering from COVID-19 on Aug. 6.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s July 15 mask order is being credited with decreasing the number of coronavirus cases in the state, which had soared to a seven-day average of 1,921 cases per day on July 19. The current seven-day average is 780 cases per day but is little changed in the last ten days.

The mask order expires next month, but most observers expect the mask order to be continued into November.

High school football and the Labor Day holiday weekend did not lead to a surge in cases; however, public health authorities remain concerned that colder weather and the return of flu season could lead to another surge in cases.

President Donald Trump has expressed optimism that a coronavirus vaccine could be commercially available this fall. A number of public health officials, including the CDC director, have expressed skepticism of that optimistic appraisal.

At least 969,611 people have died from COVID-19 globally, including 204,506 Americans.

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