Fair jurist generated moral force in South

July 29, 1999|By Jack Bass

I WAS curious about why Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the editor for my biography of federal Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., felt so intensely about him. When I asked how she became interested, she leaned back reflectively at her desk at Doubleday, then said, "He's long been a hero of mine. I guess it goes back to the White House and hearing Jack and Bobby talk about him."

Judge Johnson, who died Friday, stoically endured death threats, the bombing of his mother's home and social ostracism as he issued a string of rulings, including a pivotal 1956 decision that marked a victory for the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, outlawing segregation across a wide spectrum -- public transportation, parks, restaurants, libraries and schools.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Judge Johnson gave true meaning to the word justice."

Judge Johnson's rare combination of strength, courage, integrity, intellect and wisdom generated a powerful moral force. He made the rule of law prevail during a period of violent upheaval.

By the books

Although his orders helped transform the social order in the South, Judge Johnson never viewed matters before him as societal issues. To him they were always legal issues.

When I first interviewed him, in 1974, he explained, "When you have a voting rights case and you find that there's been a pattern and practice of discrimination against the blacks in registering to vote, you don't register the blacks to vote so that they can gain political power.

"You are faced with some legal issues, and if they are entitled to relief, you give them relief and you order that they be registered. Now the effect of their registering and voting and electing a sheriff and other county officials is something that the court's not concerned with, and has no interest in it."

The Republican "Southern strategy" kept him off the Supreme Court. His friend, then-Chief Justice Warren Burger, once called Judge Johnson in from a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico to tell him President Nixon was appointing him to succeed Justice Hugo Black.

Years later, a contrite Alabama congressman told Mr. Johnson that he and the state's two other GOP representatives learned about it and told then-Attorney General John Mitchell such an appointment would hurt them politically. The congressman told the judge, "We made a mistake and I want to apologize."

Back to the hills

They buried Mr. Johnson on Tuesday in his native Haleyville, Ala., in mountainous Winston County, a Unionist stronghold during the Civil War. I once drove the four hours to that northern county from Montgomery with him. As the terrain became more rugged, he said softly, "I always enjoy coming to the hills." They'll endure, as will his legacy.

Jack Bass is author of "Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson and the South's Fight over Civil Rights," which won the 1994 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He wrote this for Cox News Service.

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