Tom Turnipseed, who after working on the presidential campaign of the segregationist George C. Wallace in 1968 took a 180-degree turn and became a champion of civil rights, died on March 6 at his home in Columbia, S.C. He was 83.
In 1968 when Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, was the American Independent Party candidate for president, Turnipseed, a South Carolina lawyer, was the campaign's executive director.
"I liked him," Turnipseed explained in an interview for Tom Brokaw's book "Boom! Voices of the Sixties" (2007). "He was standing up for the South."
But the campaign began to change his thinking, setting the stage for him to become, as he often described himself, a "reformed racist."
"What turned me off was not Wallace, but the crowds," he told the New York Times in 1978. Wallace, he saw, was tapping into something ugly, not just in the South but among white blue-collar supporters in the North.
Turnipseed often mentioned one moment that made a stark impression. He was in Webster, Mass., arranging to use a Polish-American club's building for a campaign event. Club officials were such Wallace fans that they told him he could use it at no charge. Then, he said, the club manager asked him to affirm that, if elected, Wallace would line up all the black people — the man used a racial epithet — and shoot them.
"I realized the man was serious. And it kind of got to me." he said in the PBS series "Eyes on the Prize."
After the '68 election, in which Wallace won 13% of the popular vote, Turnipseed established a law practice in Columbia and worked on civil rights and other progressive causes. He was part of a coalition seeking utility rate reform in the early '70s, an experience that he said further solidified his change of heart. Utilities were charging higher rates to low-volume residential users, many of whom were black.
Turnipseed also served four years as a state senator, from 1976-80, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1980 and state attorney general in 1998.
In recent interviews, he was often asked to compare the tactics and emotions of Wallace's 1968 campaign with those of President Donald Trump during his run for president in 2016. "Both of them," he told BuzzFeed in 2016, "use a lot of the same kind of scare tactics and fear."
He was born on Aug. 27, 1936, in Mobile, Ala. His father, George, was an entomologist, and his mother, Ruby (Bell) Turnipseed, worked for the post office. A grandfather, he told Brokaw, was a wizard in the Ku Klux Klan.
In the 1990s Turnipseed was among those calling on South Carolina to stop flying the Confederate battle flag over the Capitol dome. (The flag was moved elsewhere in 2000.)
"It's a lost cause," he said. "It was the dumbest, biggest mistake in the history of this country, and we made it! We can't own up to making the biggest mistake ever made. And we're still making it."
In addition to his wife, Judith Davis Turnipseed, Tom Turnipseed is survived by a son, Jeff, and a daughter, Jeny Mathis.