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Former city councilor, activist Chuck Turner dies

Former city councilor Chuck Turner.
Former city councilor Chuck Turner. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Chuck Turner, a former Boston city councilor who passionately advocated for his black and Latino constituents but left office amid a bribery scandal, died Wednesday. He was 79.

A longtime community organizer turned elected official, Mr. Turner was a beloved figure in the Roxbury neighborhood he once represented and where, over five decades, he built a reputation as a fighter for racial and economic justice.

On the council, he cut an unorthodox figure, as likely to champion intensely local issues that endeared him to his constituents as those far beyond the legislative body’s purview. He opened a district office outside of City Hall — a rarity for a council member, and not only because Mr. Turner reportedly paid for it with his own cash. And he led sit-ins and protests even while in office, an approach owed to the activism that provided the heartbeat for the five-term councilor’s career.

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“While I found organizing to be challenging, demanding, and often frustrating, I realized there would be no more fulfilling way of repaying my debt to my ancestors than devoting my life to organizing,” Mr. Turner wrote in the 50th anniversary report of his Harvard University class.

“While I have had many different jobs and participated in an even greater number of volunteer community initiatives,” he wrote, “organizing has always been at the center of my work.”

City Councilor Kim Janey, who holds Mr. Turner’s former seat, on Thursday confirmed the news of his death after speaking with Mr. Turner’s wife, Terri. Efforts to reach Mr. Turner’s relatives on Thursday were not successful, but friends and colleagues said he had been long battling an illness.

“He has 50-plus years of organizing for this city. Transformational changes have been made because of Chuck Turner. Lives have been changed because of Chuck Turner,” Janey told the Globe. On Twitter, she called him a “Roxbury giant.”

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“Our community is better because of your activism and the lessons you shared,” Janey wrote. “We owe you a debt of gratitude.”

Mr. Turner’s legacy is a complicated one. He was convicted in 2010 of attempted extortion and three counts of providing false statements to FBI agents after authorities said he accepted $1,000 in cash in exchange for helping a nightclub win a liquor license.

Mr. Turner denied the charges and described the FBI corruption sting as a racially motivated setup. The council later voted, 11-1, to expel him from the chamber, marking the first time a Boston city councilor had been removed from office.

But the state’s highest court ruled in 2012 that the council had overstepped its authority by ousting him before he was sentenced to prison. The next year, Mr. Turner received a $106,000 settlement from the city, though the majority of it went toward his legal costs.

“I don’t want anyone to think that any one chapter should be defining of one’s legacy. You have to read the whole book,” said Darnell L. Williams, the former president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.

“Chuck Turner was a relentless advocate for those who did not have a voice at the table,” he said. “If I’m in a foxhole fighting someone else, I would want to make sure I’m on the same side as Chuck.”

Mr. Turner, a Cincinnati native who moved to Massachusetts to attend Harvard, first gained prominence in the 1960s as a local community organizer. He helped lead a battle to stop an eight-lane highway from carving a swath through city neighborhoods, and Mr. Turner for years pushed for, and in 1983 finally helped get passed, a city ordinance mandating that various percentages of the workforce on city-funded construction projects be reserved for people of color, women, and Boston residents.

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But that’s not to say he saw the work as done. In the 1990s, he attracted media attention when he organized groups to pressure construction contractors to hire blacks and Latinos. The efforts came during an economic downturn, and Mr. Turner argued that in minority neighborhoods construction workers for local projects should include local residents. In 1991, he led a sit-in at then-Mayor Ray Flynn’s office to demand more jobs for minorities on a city sewer line project.

For years he worked alongside Boston activist Mel King, including on King’s campaigns for state representative and mayor, and in the 1980s, Mr. Turner was active in a secession movement that aimed to create a new city of Mandela from Boston’s minority neighborhoods.

“His legacy was developing young people to become organizers, to become activists . . . to be strategic about the work that they do,” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and a veteran activist who first met Mr. Turner in 1974. “He’s an amazing cat. I learned so much from him.”

Tito Jackson, a former city councilor who knew Mr. Turner since Jackson was a child and succeeded him in the District 7 seat, called Mr. Turner “the lion of organizing and fighting for the people, for equity, for justice, and against displacement and gentrification.”

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“Chuck has always led the charge to get people of color and women into the building trades and ensure that the building trades looked like the city of Boston,” Jackson said.

Mr. Turner first ran for the City Council as a member of the Green-Rainbow Party and was elected in 1999 to represent District 7, which includes Roxbury, Lower Roxbury, and parts of the Fenway, South End, and Dorchester.

In 2002, he created an ordinance to protect transgender people from discrimination. He also successfully advocated against a proposal by then-Governor Mitt Romney to cut the state’s affirmative action standards.

Mr. Turner also made headlines on issues far removed from the council’s regular reach. Once he was quoted as saying that Condoleezza Rice working for the Bush administration was a “tool to white leaders.  . . .  It’s similar in my mind to a Jewish person working for Hitler in the 1930s.”

He drew criticism in 2004 for holding a press conference displaying photos that purportedly showed Iraqi women being raped by US soldiers, though they contained no evidence indicating that was the case. Several of his fellow councilors later said they verified that the images matched photographs on a pornographic website.

Three years later, Mr. Turner prompted the City Council to passionately debate and ultimately pass a measure denouncing the Iraq War.

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In 2008, when Mr. Turner was arrested on charges of accepting a bribe, FBI agents investigating government corruption swept him into their case almost as an afterthought, prosecutors acknowledged at the time. The main target was then-state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes worth more than $23,000 from undercover agents and Boston businessman Ronald Wilburn, who was working with the FBI.

In 2007, Wilburn videotaped a meeting with Mr. Turner, during which he gave the councilor $1,000 in exchange for a liquor license. The video, though, was of poor quality and Mr. Turner’s defense argued that it was impossible to make out what transpired.

Mr. Turner ultimately served 28 months in federal prison after being found guilty of taking a bribe and lying to federal agents about accepting the money. Mr. Turner long said he was innocent.

“The purpose was to take us down because they saw the power of communities of color rising just like the Irish power rose,” Mr. Turner said on the day he was expelled from the council.

That decision drew criticism from his constituents in Roxbury, and Mr. Turner remained popular in the district that reelected him to office in 2009 even after he was indicted.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Mr. Turner was “a staunch advocate for the people of Boston.”

“As a City Councilor, and in the years after, he was instrumental in fighting for many of the social justice initiatives that are in place today, from ensuring the participation of people of color in Boston’s development projects, to supporting the African American Master Artists in Residence Program against displacement,” Walsh said in a statement. “Boston has a heavy heart today with the news of his passing. May he rest in peace.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan, Milton Valencia, and Felice Belman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com.