By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
As thousands of journalists gather in Birmingham for the 2023 National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Convention and Career Fair, Nathan Hale Turner Jr. has a distinction no one else can claim: He is the first Black undergraduate student to earn a journalism degree from the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Turner is pleased and proud to see so many of his fellow journalists gather in his hometown for the event, held from August 2–6, and knows the importance of their roles in society.
“Journalism is still going to be the gatekeeper and still a protector of the average person against interests that would swallow people up,” he said. “Whether it’s big business or crooked politicians, … journalists [serve as] the watchmen against insidious impulses.”
Because of that important role, “Black journalists need to step up our game, … be more proactive and a lot more progressive, use our intelligence and our communication skills to find a way to counteract all these reactionary forces,” he said. “If anybody can do it, we can.”
Turner had a distinguished career working at The Birmingham News for 39 years before he was among dozens of employees laid off in 2012. Over the course of his career, he has noticed a shift in the field of journalism.
During a recent interview with The Birmingham Times, Turner said, “I always knew journalism was kind of the spearhead for progress, not just for Black people but for the whole community. It was always in my mind that this is a front line to make progress, to make improvements. I think there has always been a consciousness among Black journalists that we want to make things better.”
Turner said the early pioneer Black journalists were baby boomers, individuals born between 1946 and 1964, and they all had the same mindset. Many of them, as well as the generations before them, wanted to see change within communities as it relates to racism, he said.
“We had just gotten out of segregation and wanted to make an impact,” he added. “I think the Black journalism community still has that task, but [journalists] probably need to be more embedded at trying to make an impact. As a Black journalist, you’re on the front line to make things better.”
Turner, 70, was born in Atmore, Alabama. At age 3, his parents moved to Birmingham. Turner was raised in the Titusville area alongside his younger brother, Reginald, who passed away earlier this year, and his sister, Mirian, who passed away in 2021.
“My parents came [to Birmingham] for better job opportunities. There was segregation back in those days [and] my parents got jobs teaching in the Jefferson County and Birmingham City school systems,” he said, adding that his parents taught at several Birmingham area schools, including Arthur Harold “A.H.” Parker and Wenonah high schools, and his father went on to become a principal at a few.
“We did OK,” Turner said. “We didn’t have to struggle too much, by the grace of God.”
In addition to providing for their family, Turner’s parents also encouraged imagination and creativity.
Recalling poetry that he started writing around age 8, Turner said, “My mom and dad would think [the poems] were cool [because they thought I was clever and showed imagination and creativity at 8 years old]. For some reason, I put it in my head that I could write.”
And he kept writing.
Turner attended Samuel Ullman High School, which closed in 1970, on the Southside near the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). During his sophomore year, he began to write for the school newspaper, entered into an editorial contest, and won.
“My English teacher said, ‘Wow, we have a journalist in our midst.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, thank you.’ Then I went home to look up the [definition of the] word journalist,” he said.
Because of his writing skills, Turner’s teachers recommended that he attend a two-week journalism clinic at UA. “That kind of glued me to journalism,” he recalled.
Later, Turner won a contest sponsored by Operation New Birmingham, “which is something like the Chamber of Commerce.”
“I was awarded $25,” he added. “That’s when I told myself, ‘Maybe I have some skills.’”
While in high school, Turner knew the importance of furthering his education. “My parents were both educated, but I was just a few generations from when Black folks didn’t have any education. My grandparents were farmers, and some were [laborers], so I felt compelled to go on to college.”
Turner was further inspired to pursue higher education following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which occurred one year before Turner graduated from high school.
“As Black folks, we just knew we wanted to push on and that we were the vanguard of the future. … It was a sensitive time. Black folks [felt like] the future of the community was on our shoulders,” said Turner, adding that Dr. King was one of his role models, along with his parents and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Sr., a member of the influential Kennedy family of American politics, who also was assassinated in 1968.
“I know [Robert Kennedy] was born into wealth, but he was socially conscious. Anybody that had social consciousness was my hero [and] motivated me because I was an idealist, thinking I could change the world and make everything better,” Turner said.
During his senior year in high school, Turner applied to UA. “By the grace of God, I got accepted there in 1969 and majored in journalism with a minor in sociology,” he said, recalling that he was one of about 200 or 300 Black students out of 15,000.
Asked what the campus was like for a Black student, he said, “Sometimes you would hear the N-word hollered out of the window at night.”
Turner vividly remembers watching a protest on campus when a white policeman told him to leave the area in a vulgar way. “There were a few more [racial] incidents, but not many,” he said. “We were left alone, but you knew you were just tolerated.”
Turner became a part of the editorial staff for The Crimson White, UA’s campus newspaper. He felt it was imperative to become a journalist because “I knew I came with a skill, and the ability to write is a weapon,” he said.
“Communication is the basis for progress,” added Turner, who graduated in 1973, becoming the first Black person to obtain an undergraduate degree in journalism from UA.
The Birmingham News
After completing his undergraduate studies in 1973 at age 20, Turner was one of the first African Americans hired at The Birmingham News, now The Birmingham News/AL.com, where he began as a general assignment night reporter.
“It was kind of exciting and jolting in a way,” he said. “I did crime stories and stuff like that. I would get to wrecks and sometimes bodies would still be there.”
Turner recalled one incident when he arrived at the scene of an accident and saw several dead bodies.
“There was a wreck on Tallapoosa Street, and I could still see a woman and her daughter in the vehicle. Turns out a drunk driver collided with them, killing them, himself, and another driver. You could smell the alcohol on the scene,” he said.
Eventually, Turner transitioned to a copy editor position, which he held until being laid off in 2012 with dozens of others.
“They hired me back as a [content curator, someone who sorts through online data and collects the most relevant items to share on blogs, websites, and through social media], for about a year and a half. I put together pages for the Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile [editions],” he said. “That was my last job at The Birmingham News/AL.com.”
Turner still lives in Titusville with his wife, Machele, and daughters, Mallorie and Natavia. And he is still a journalist, freelancing for several publications, in addition to writing a biography about a local businessman in Birmingham.
Though the profession can have its challenges, Turner encourages young journalists to look forward and keep a positive attitude.
“Keep writing and practicing writing. After every story you write, learn from the previous story, learn from your errors, and make your next project even better,” he said.
“You are a key part of the community,” Turner added. “A journalist is a scribe. Scribes are important in the Bible. We carry information, and we really are the cement to the community.”
The veteran journalist also encourages younger journalism professionals to look for projects that nobody else is thinking of and be aggressive.
“Tell yourself you will not be mediocre. It all boils down to your motivation and determination to make an impact—as long as you keep a sense of integrity, don’t compromise yourself, and know in your heart that you can make [a difference],” Turner said. “It’s all about your inner drive.”
How veteran journalist William Singleton researched Black journalists and mental health for his doctoral dissertation. For more click here.
Meet Phyllis Gilchrist, a Birmingham native who helped found the city’s chapter of the NABJ. Click here
The 2023 National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Convention and Career Fair takes place in Birmingham, Alabama, from August 2–6. Thousands of Black journalists from across the United States will be in attendance.