Portrait of Kamilah Turner.
Kamilah Turner is an “Unsung, Unbowed, Unstoppable” honoree. She worked as a Shelby County public defender for 15 years and is now in private practice. Photos by Jasmine Watson for MLK50

Black women are building movements in Memphis. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is spotlighting women whose names may not be easily recognizable, but who are forces in the fight for voting rights, access to health care, criminal justice reform and on other critical issues. Kamilah Turner is the third of six women in our series, “Unsung, Unbowed, Unstoppable,” who are being profiled over three months, all nominated by their peers and our staff. 

The word “freedom” rolls off Kamilah Turner’s tongue like a sacred mantra. The 43-year-old Memphis attorney will tell anyone that she is an ardent defender of freedom — always keeping in mind those who tread the paths before her.

“You will have to fight me,” she said resolutely of her drive to advocate for those who are deprived of freedom to speak, think, or move on their own behalf; often accused of crimes or denied fundamental rights. 

Unsung, Unbowed, Unstoppable

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“I have always been about justice and freedom,” she said. “You are supposed to fight for that.”

Turner has spent 19 years practicing law in Memphis, 15 of those years as a Shelby County public defender before opening her own practice.

The Xavier University and University of Memphis Law School graduate sees her work as much a family calling as a profession, even though she first considered medicine.

“I come from a family of activism,” she said, mentioning her parents, the late Memphis attorney Melvin Turner and former teacher and Heritage Tours co-founder Elaine Lee Turner. There also are several aunts with bona fide protest-creds among her mother’s 13 siblings.

The Lee sisters participated in sit-ins in the 1960s, including at public libraries that did not allow Black people. Elaine was arrested at protests so many times that she was blacklisted from employment for a while.

“My mother has been doing this work her whole life,” Kamilah Turner said proudly. In fact, Jet Magazine in 1965 dubbed Turner’s mother and aunts “The Most-Arrested Family” in the United States for being jailed 17 times during the civil rights movement. There is a marker at Main Street and Gayoso Avenue where the sisters were arrested during a sit-in at the old Shainberg’s department store.

Turner’s parents met while studying at LeMoyne-Owen College, which was across the street from LeMoyne Gardens public housing where her father, Melvin, grew up. He used benefits from service in the U.S. Army to fund his education, including law school at Texas Southern University. After marriage, the couple left for St. Louis, where they were free to work without being unfairly targeted because of their activism. But Memphis had the pull of home for them.

They returned, Elaine teaching English at suburban schools where she was not branded a troublemaker. Melvin earned a reputation as a principled defense attorney. On her website, Kamilah Turner said her father was known for his charm, as well as demanding respect from “old South” judges. She has fond memories of accompanying her father as he worked at his law office.

In 1983, Elaine and her late sister Joan Lee Nelson co-founded the Heritage Tours, which ferries visitors to sites important to Black history. Elaine also is president of the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum.

Portrait of Kamilah Turner
Turner’s family has roots in Memphis. Her late father, Melvin, was also a defense attorney and her mother, Elaine, was a school teacher and civil rights activist.

Though it would be easy to imply that Turner followed in her father’s lawyerly footsteps, she insists, “my father said to do whatever you want to do.”

Her decision to be a defense attorney is rooted in “a belief that everyone deserves a fair chance in the system,” she said. Turner thinks the system is deeply flawed, including by “over-policing” of Black communities and unfair bail and sentencing systems.

Those accused “need somebody who is knowledgeable and compassionate to walk them through.”

Turner tries to walk this walk with every case, “every step — the trial, the negotiation, the sentencing, the parole.” Even so, “I recognize my limitations,” she said. “My faith in God is at the center of my life. I ask for guidance every step of the way because the decisions I make can have a great impact on someone’s life.”

Defending individuals who need a strong advocate is of ultimate importance to Turner. She mentioned the case of Oshay Sims, 17, who in 2018 confessed to a murder he did not commit after numerous hours of intense, harsh interrogation by police. There was no audio or video record.

By the time Turner was able to prove the young man’s innocence, Sims had spent over a year in jail. Sadly, he died in a car accident two months after he was released.

Of all cases, Turner said this one stays in her mind as she advocates prohibiting law enforcement from interrogating minors without lawyers or a parent present. She wants the state to enact such a law, and have it reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court so it becomes the law of the land.

“False confessions happen so much more with children,” she said. “Something really has to be done.”

Prominent on her law office webpage is a quote from Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” EJI has won major legal challenges to unfair sentencing, as well as exonerating dozens of prisoners on death row and advocating for the mentally ill and for juveniles accused of crimes.

Turner derives strength and resolve from people in the struggle — like Stevenson, her own parents and formidable aunties, she said. She aspires to live up to their example. And, she aims to answer big questions: “How many innocent people are in prison we don’t know about? …How can we prevent people from going to jail in the first place?”

Sacrificing for change

Another issue Turner is tackling is in the realm of voting rights. She quotes a study released by The Sentencing Project last year that found more than 20% of Black people of voting age in Tennessee cannot vote due to a felony conviction. Further barriers include having to pay fines and fill out intimidating paperwork to have rights restored.

Turner finds the obstacles unconscionable and racist in their effect. “It takes hard, sacrificial work to change (unjust) things,” she said. “It’s an ongoing struggle, a journey, a process.”

She sees hope in the people who woke up to systemic injustice following the very public killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “There was something about watching someone killing a person with no regard for their life,” she said. “More people saw there is something terribly wrong — not only with the justice system, but with this country.”

And she was encouraged by the guilty verdicts Tuesday for Derek Chauvin, the policeman who murdered Floyd. “I’m certainly relieved. I’m optimistic,” Turner said. “I think that a message has been sent to law enforcement throughout the country that the community will demand accountability.

“While I’m hopeful, I know that there is still much more work to be done to dismantle the system that allowed this to happen in the first place. George Floyd should not have been killed in that way. We must never lose sight of that.”

Corrected: Kamilah Turner’s mother and aunts who were arrested for protesting were the Lee sisters, not the Turner sisters. Also, Turner’s parents moved to St. Louis, not Arkansas, after marrying. A previous version of this story was incorrect.

Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.

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