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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

In the End, Judge Frank Johnson Needed Community Acceptance, Too

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on June 17, 2019

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas rocked Southern society to its foundation. The Supreme Court found that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional and overturned Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine that had been the law of the land for 58 years. Communities across America, particularly in the South, wrestled with the Supreme Court’s mandate that public schools be desegregated with "all deliberate speed.”

From school boards to state houses and governors’ mansions, Southern politicians, all of whom were white, vowed massive resistance to the Brown ruling. The responsibility for applying the holding in Brown to local cases rested with federal judges in Southern states. All of these judges were white and many of them were diehard racist themselves. They were also established figures in their communities.

Except for Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. in Montgomery and Judge Virgil Pittman in Mobile, the other federal judges in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s were reluctant to incur the wrath of their staunchly segregationist neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family members.

Judge Johnson was sworn-in as a federal judge on October 22, 1955, just before his 37th birthday. He was the youngest federal judge in the country.

Johnson's legal decisions in the 1950s and 1960s desegregated public schools in Alabama, city buses in Montgomery, eliminated the state poll tax, allowed blacks to serve on juries, and authorized the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Judge Johnson’s landmark rulings advanced the civil rights of blacks, women, inmates, and the mentally ill in Alabama and throughout America. In 1974, he singlehandedly stopped Alabama’s widespread application of compulsory sterilization of poor women and women of color.

Because of his progressive court rulings, Judge Johnson became the most hated man in Alabama’s white community in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. His historic civil rights decisions subjected his wife, son, and Judge Johnson to two decades of isolation from the white community, ostracism by white public officials in the state, cross-burnings at his Montgomery home, and endless death threats. This isolation and ostracism took a terrible toll on Judge Johnson’s family. His son suffered from prolonged mental illness which was aggravated by years of harassment and ostracism. At the age of 28, Johnson’s son committed suicide.

Like most whites in the Deep South, Judge Johnson wanted, needed, and sought some measure of acceptance in the local white community as he neared the end of his long and distinguished tenure as a U.S. District Court judge. He achieved this acceptance by bashing my father, Dr. Levi Watkins, for so-called “reverse discrimination” in the 1978 case of Charles Craig v. Alabama State University. In the Craig case, Judge Johnson found that Alabama State University, which is located in Montgomery, had engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against whites in the hiring of administrative, clerical and support staff, as well as faculty. That finding resulted in injunctive relief forbidding any further discrimination on the part of ASU in all aspects of hiring practices at the university. 

In a single case, Judge Johnson redefined my father’s local image, national reputation, and life’s work for the sole purpose of appeasing the racists who had ostracized his family and him for decades and whose cruelty caused his son to commit suicide. Blacks leaders in Montgomery knew exactly what Judge Johnson was doing in the Craig case, and why. They all stood in solidarity with my father.

In ruling against ASU, Judge Johnson ignored the fact that my father, who served as president of the all-black Owen Junior College in Memphis, Tennessee from 1954 to 1959, risked his life and his family’s safety by bringing white educators from northern states to serve as faculty members at Owen shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown. He also ignored the fact that the all-white Alabama State Board of Education was the final decision-maker on every hiring and firing decision at ASU prior to the time the university acquired an independent board of trustees in 1975. He forgave the Alabama Legislature’s creation of Auburn University at Montgomery, which was founded in 1967 for the sole purpose of impeding the desegregation of the newly accredited ASU. Finally, Judge Johnson ignored the fact that once ASU acquired its own board of trustees in 1975, it became the most desegregated public university in Alabama.

None of these facts mattered to Judge Johnson in 1978 because he needed to show Montgomery’s white community that he would inflict his judicial wrath on a well-known black public official so that he could achieve a modicum of acceptance in the very community that had ostracized and shunned his family and him for decades. The Craig case presented Judge Johnson with this opportunity.

After tarnishing my father’s good name, unprecedented achievements in education, and stellar personal and professional reputation in Alabama and around the nation, Judge Johnson quietly moved from his home in an upscale neighborhood in West Montgomery that was transitioning from white to black to an all-white neighborhood in East Montgomery.

In 1979, Judge Johnson became an appellate court judge, where he served in a less visible capacity until his death in 1999.

President Bill Clinton awarded Judge Johnson a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 for landmark decisions in the areas of desegregation, voting rights, and civil liberties. In 1992, Congress named the federal courthouse in Montgomery for Johnson. The Alabama Legislature, 25 years after calling for Judge Johnson’s impeachment by Congress, passed a resolution honoring him.

The narrative Judge Johnson painted of my father in the Craig case faded with the passage of time, but this episode taught me a valuable lesson about people: Even respected federal judges who enjoy lifetime appointments in their job need and want community acceptance, and they will do whatever it takes to achieve this acceptance in the communities where they live.

Like all of us, judges are human, too.

PHOTO: Montgomery, Alabama Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

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