Judge Johnson, shaping justice for a New South

January 31, 1993|By Margaria Fichtner | Margaria Fichtner,Knight-Ridder News Service

TAMING THE STORM: THE LIFE

AND TIMES OF FRANK M.

JOHNSON, JR., AND THE

SOUTH'S FIGHT OVER

CIVIL RIGHTS.

Jack Bass.

Doubleday.

512 pages. $24.95.

His austere countenance rarely surfaces among the images of the civil rights struggle, yet it will be Judge Frank Johnson Jr. -- more than that snarling old bulldog George Wallace, the stoic sit-in protesters of Greensboro or the marchers on the road to Selma -- whom history will credit with reweaving the tattered social and political fabric of the South.

Martin Luther King may have stirred the revolution with his stunning charisma and divine oratory, but, as Jack Bass stresses in this largely worshipful new biography, it took Johnson, a hillbilly Republican with an independent streak and an innate sense of justice, to enforce change.

During his 24 tumultuous years as an Alabama federal district judge, Frank Johnson produced a stream of orders and opinions that defined -- and sometimes stretched beyond previously imagined limits -- the way courts can clarify and amend the framework of American life.

He declared segregated public transportation unconstitutional. He ordered the integration of public facilities. He opened his state's electoral system and voter-registration process to blacks. integrated the schools and highway patrol. He admitted women to jury service and ordered new minimum standards for the state's bestial prisons and mental institutions.

His reading of the law was creative and controversial, and as the shock waves rumbled across Dixie, old ways fell and new angers bubbled. Johnson became "the most-hated man in the South," a legal piranha to hell-bent segregationists.

Time magazine put him on its cover, but a cross was burned on his lawn. A bomb blew a hole in his mother's house. Johnson's friend, Sam Durden, who displayed the judge's picture in his office, boasted: "I'm the only businessman in . . . Alabama who could have a portrait of Frank Johnson and still do a landslide business." Durden ran a mortuary.

Mr. Bass carefully portrays the judge less as the flat-out integrationist he often was painted (in fact, Johnson opposed school busing and deplored civil disobedience) than as a natural product of his time and place. As a son of Union-sympathizing Winston County in northern Alabama, Johnson never outgrew the principles of individual rights and equal justice in which he had been steeped from childhood.

As Mr. Bass quotes him: "People in that section of the country have a fiercely independent attitude and personality. They believe in a person's dignity, and they believe each person is possessed of and is entitled to integrity. . . . Those were the standards, and they're still my standards."

They made Johnson one of the most influential and innovative circuit judges in history. He was Richard Nixon's choice for the Supreme Court and Jimmy Carter's pick to head the FBI. Politics intervened in the first case and illness in the second, but there seems little doubt that the man's unfulfilled potential in either post should be considered vast.

Mr. Bass, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi, notes in his acknowledgments that he interviewed the judge in person or by phone freely over a span of three years. Yet, after Chapter 1, in which the two drive up to Winston County to root out a Johnson family grave, the easy informality of Vienna ("Vy-eena") sausages and pings of spat tobacco juice evaporates. From then on, the Johnson of Mr. Bass' interviews becomes faded and distant, his presence no longer three-dimensional, his voice distilled into italics, brittle, disembodied and often superfluous.

It is an odd format and so saps much of the book of Johnson's flesh and spirit that one wonders why Mr. Bass' editor, Jacqueline Onassis, did not impose a more vivid, or at least more graceful, alternative. It is the storm that is supposed to be tamed here, not the judge. Fortunately, the anecdotes and observations of others -- Johnson's siblings, former law clerks, friends, neighbors, fellow judges and particularly his entertaining and opinionated wife, Ruth -- better round out the man.

"Taming the Storm" may not possess the thundering nobility of David McCullough's "Truman " or the global scope of other recent biographies, but it does add another perspective to the archives of the civil rights movement. Even more important, it affirms that a judge who refuses to be bullied or beholden can better lives.

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