On April 24, 1963, Birmingham-Southern student Marti Turnipseed took a risk. Inspired by a rally the previous day led by Martin Luther King, Turnipseed became the sole white participant in a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter downtown. The result, after some coercion from Bull Connor, was Turnipseed’s expulsion from the college.
50 years later, Birmingham-Southern College and members of the broader Birmingham community honored the spirit of Turnipseed’s actions with the Forward, Ever Birmingham! march. The march, which takes its name from the college’s motto, began on ‘Southern’s campus, then proceeded down Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd. to Kelly Ingram Park.
While it’s true that the abuse Turnipseed suffered during and after the sit-in was only a fraction of an everyday reality for Birmingham’s black citizens, her courage is a powerful example for BSC President Charles Krulak, who led the march along with Mayor William Bell.
“We seem reluctant to embrace our past,” Krulak, a former commandant of the United States Marine Corps, said in an interview with Weld. “We have a portion of the population who is ashamed or embarrassed or uneasy about what transpired 50 years ago, and we have a portion of our great city that still harbors anger about what happened.
“In fact, what was 50 years ago central to the Civil Rights Movement became the spark that ignited the human rights movement…across the world,” Krulak continued. “What this city desperately needs to do is embrace what happened, and use it as a drawing card not just for people who are studying Civil Rights, but people who are interested in human rights. To do that, you have to bring together the past, the present and the future, and that’s what this march is about. We picked a young woman who by all rights should have sat on this hilltop…but who recognized that something was wrong, and bad, and threw all of her conventions aside.”
Krulak’s own introduction to the Hilltop and its conventions were largely serendipitous. During a November, 2010 visit to Birmingham for National Veterans Day, Krulak took a friend’s advice to stop by Birmingham-Southern, a college he’d never heard of. After a characteristically thorough six-hour inspection, he withdrew his name from contention for three other university president positions and submitted his candidacy to replace David Pollick, an aesthete who had left the college amid a perilous financial crisis.
While a small liberal arts college in the Deep South seems an odd fit for lifelong Marine, the college’s twin values of critical thinking and service immediately appealed to Krulak. As commandant of the Marine Corps, Krulak had spearheaded a redefinition of the Marine for the modern world. That model, the strategic corporal, echoed many of the same liberal arts values he would later embrace as president at ‘Southern.
For Krulak, the key distinction is that of education versus training: “Education that you see on the campus of a liberal arts college is training for the unexpected. What we’re seeing in the world is more and more of the unexpected, of chaos. Unless you have a group of your citizenry that can take large and difficult and knotty problems and break them into bite-sized pieces and articulate solutions to them…then you’re really not going to be prepared for the world around you.
“You’ve got to stop training people, and you’ve got to start educating people so that they understand culture, that they understand values, that they understand religion, that they understand how these all interact to make for a chaotic world,” Krulak added. It’s a process he’s found is universally applicable, whether it’s on the battlefield, in the boardroom or in the classroom.
It’s also a mindset that both General Krulak and BSC’s director of communications, Hannah Wolfson, find in Turnipseed’s actions. “If you go through and read Marti’s diary letters from the time,” Wolfson said, “you can see that her decisions were influenced by what she was learning in the classroom: engaging with her religion professors and other students, trying to reconcile the world around her with what she was learning.”
Just as fundamentally, in both Krulak and Wolfson’s opinion, Turnipseed’s actions reflect Birmingham-Southern’s core tenet of service, best expressed by original Southern University President William Wightman’s statement that what matters is “not so much what you shall get, as what you shall become – what you shall do to bless your generation.” Krulak infers that Turnipseed, a third-generation student at ‘Southern, may have internalized that statement from Wightman, or merely acted along similar principles at a time when it was least convenient to do so.
“We’re not just some isolated school on a hilltop in a bubble,” Krulak said. “Our roots are very deep.” In addition to the college’s participation in the Birmingham community west of the interstate, Krulak also cited student involvement in gun control – specifically “supporting measures that would increase the rigor of background checks, the control of assault weapons and the size of magazines” – women’s rights, human trafficking, LGBT issues, relief for communities still recovering from the April tornadoes and participation in Civil Rights Movement commemorations like the April 24 march.
Though Krulak is already proud of BSC’s track record for community involvement and human rights awareness, he hopes that events like the Forward, Ever Birmingham! march and that examples like Turnipseed’s will inspire Birmingham to embrace its troubled past.
“Here’s somebody who was totally opposite of what you would have expected at a sit-in, but something touched her, and she had the courage to do the right thing,” Krulak said. “The march isn’t just a look at the past; far more importantly, it’s a look toward the future.”
The featured image for this post was provided courtesy of Birmingham-Southern College.