Former Athens City Councilman Ed Turner died last week at age 73, and he is honored for being the first African American elected to public office in Athens and indeed in all of northeast Georgia. Turner grew up in Athens and graduated from UGA. He was elected to the city council in 1970, back when the Athens and Clarke County governments were still separate.
He was elected in the old First Ward, which was roughly half white and half black in racial composition and had always been represented by white councilmen. His election was accomplished by a lot of hard work in voter registration and door-to-door campaigning by a coalition of black citizens, UGA students and political activists.
Many thought at the time that Athens “wasn’t ready” for a black councilman, and it is probably true that Athens wasn’t ready for Ed Turner. He conducted himself by the principle that he was elected to represent his constituents, and he was an early advocate for Athens’ poorer and less well-connected citizens. This stance frequently made him a contrarian on the city council, a role he enjoyed.
Turner was smart and knowledgeable about politics and his community, but he cultivated a demeanor that belied his abilities, frequently causing opponents to underestimate him, sometimes even causing allies to wonder where he was coming from. Underneath his public personality, Turner had a soft laugh and a twinkle in his eye, as if he took pleasure in never letting people take for granted what his response might be on any given issue.
Turner’s commitment to his constituents and his readiness to speak up for them made him a constant presence to be reckoned with on the council, and a vigorous advocate for those whose voices often went unheard in the community’s political discourse. His passing grieves his family and friends and is also a reminder that Ed Turner not only broke a racial barrier, but he also set an example of forceful and uncompromising advocacy, leavened both by humor and his fierce love of the community he represented.