All achievers

Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

Presidential Medal of Freedom

I wasn't hired to be a moral judge. I wasn't hired to be a preacher or an evangelist. I'm hired to apply the law.

Frank Minis Johnson, Jr. was born and raised in Winston County, near Haleyville in the highlands of Northern Alabama. Historically, the hill country had not been part of the plantation system of the Old South, and its people long prided themselves on their independence. Johnson graduated from the University of Alabama and earned a law degree from the university’s law school in 1943. Immediately after law school, he entered the United States Army and participated in the Normandy landing during the Allied invasion of Europe. He was wounded in battle, but recovered and returned to active duty. He carried the bullet in his body for the rest of his life.

As a young infantry officer in World War II, Frank Johnson participated in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Johnson joined the U.S. Army as a private in 1943, was commissioned as an infantry lieutenant and won a bronze star for “exemplary conduct in ground combat against the enemy” in the Normandy invasion as a platoon leader in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. Wounded twice in battle, he finished the war as a legal officer in England.

On completing his military service, Johnson returned to Winston County, and practiced law in the small city of Jasper. Although the Democratic party dominated Southern politics at the time, Johnson became active in the Republican Party, attending the party’s national convention in 1948. In 1952, he supported the presidential campaign of his wartime commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Johnson headed Veterans for Eisenhower in Alabama. After Eisenhower’s victory, Johnson was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

Staff Sergeant James M. Jones, center, of Muskogee, Oklahoma, with two of his defense counsel, Lieutenant Frank Johnson, left, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Lieutenant Morris McGee, right, of Birmingham, Ala., discuss U.S. court-martial in London, April 16, 1952, hearing in which Jones was accused of beating a prisoner at the U.S. Detention Cam at Lichfield, England. Jones, former guard at the camp, is accused of simple assault and battery of prisoners and assault with a club to do bodily harm. (AP Photo)
April 16, 1946: Staff Sergeant James M. Jones, center, of Muskogee, Oklahoma, with two of his defense counsel, Lieutenant Frank Johnson, left, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Lieutenant Morris McGee, right, of Birmingham, Alabama, discuss U.S. court-martial in London, hearing in which Jones was accused of beating a prisoner at the U.S. Detention Cam at Lichfield, England. Jones, former guard at the camp, is accused of simple assault and battery of prisoners and assault with a club to do bodily harm. Johnson attracted press attention when he served as defense counsel for enlisted men who had brutalized soldiers, and those who were away without official leave, and implicated higher-ups. A major general testified he only looked into the “administrative status” of previous investigations, Johnson cited an order from General Dwight Eisenhower to investigate charges of brutality. He accused the major general of admitting he had failed to carry out his duties. Johnson also demonstrated that the commanding colonel at the Lichfield prison had directed subordinates to order guards to beat the prisoners.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas rocked Southern society to its foundations. The Supreme Court found the racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional, overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine that had prevailed in the American legal system for more than 50 years. Communities across America, particularly in the South, wrestled with the Court’s instruction that the public schools be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” From school boards to state houses and governors’ mansions, Southern politicians vowed to resist the Court’s order. At the same time, a reinvigorated civil rights movement resolved to test the new legal climate. Responsibility for applying the Supreme Court rulings to local cases would fall to the federal judges, but many of these were established figures in their communities, reluctant to incur the wrath of their staunchly segregationist neighbors.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Frank Johnson to serve as U.S. Attorney in Northern Alabama, and then as a District Court Judge. (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Back home in Alabama, Johnson went in to law practice and soon had a reputation as an excellent criminal defense lawyer. He also became involved in Republican politics. By 1952, Johnson headed the Alabama Veterans for Eisenhower, and became a state campaign manager in General Eisenhower’s winning presidential race. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Frank Johnson to serve as U.S. Attorney in Northern Alabama, and then as a District Court Judge. He was appointed by President Eisenhower a year after the Supreme Court’s school-desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education. Judge Johnson, a  Republican in the Democratic South, arrived on the bench in Montgomery, Alabama on November 7, 1955, just “as the storm of the civil rights movement was about to break.” Judge Johnson soon became the Federal judiciary’s most influential trial jurist.

In 1955, President Eisenhower appointed the 37-year-old Frank Johnson to serve as Judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Johnson faced an immediate test when an Alabama law permitting bus lines to segregate passengers by race was challenged in court. The segregation of Montgomery’s buses drew national attention when the courageous action of Rosa Parks sparked a boycott of the city’s bus system, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The first Montgomery bus case to come to Johnson’s courtroom was Browder v. Gayle (1956). Johnson held that the Brown decision applied to public transportation as well as public schools, and that the statute permitting segregation in buses was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld Johnson’s opinion in Browder, and the city buses were integrated, but segregation persisted in buses traveling between cities in the South, and the bus lines maintained separate waiting rooms. Young activists known as the Freedom Riders set out to force the issue.

Rosa Parks arrives at the Montgomery courthouse in 1956 to face trial for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. (AP Images/Gene Herrick)
Rosa Parks arrives at the Montgomery courthouse in 1956 to face trial for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Three weeks after Judge Frank Johnson was appointed to the federal bench, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white rider, as required by city law. Parks’ arrest prompted a bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a 26-year-old minister who had just moved to Montgomery. Judge Frank Johnson’s first big case was the challenge to Montgomery’s bus segregation law. Joining Judge Richard T. Rives in a majority opinion, Judge Johnson struck down the law as a violation of constitutional right to due process and equal protection, and cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ban on school segregation. More than a vindication of Dr. King’s bus boycott, it was the first time that the Brown ruling had been applied to a nonschool case, and it “cleared the way for the eventual desegregation of public services across the entire South. It became a key to Judge Johnson’s judicial development: if a right applied in one area, he could apply it in another.” (AP)

When a group of Freedom Riders, including future Congressman John R. Lewis, were beaten in the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Terminal, with the acquiescence of the local police, Johnson enjoined the Ku Klux Klan and the police chief of Montgomery from future actions against the protesters. In the same decision (United States v. U.S. Klans, 1961), Judge Johnson also enjoined the Freedom Riders from interfering with the operation of the interstate bus lines. In a separate case, Lewis v. Greyhound (1961), Johnson mandated the desegregation of the bus depots.

Johnson’s subsequent decisions on public accommodations forced the integration of libraries and agricultural services. While cities and businesses in the South grudgingly submitted to the Court’s decisions, local school boards continued to drag their feet on school integration. In Lee v. Macon County Board of Education (1963), Johnson issued the first statewide desegregation order.

Freedom Riders John Lewis and James Zwerg after being attacked and beaten by segregationists in Montgomery, Alabama, May 20, 1961. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Freedom Riders John Lewis and James Zwerg after being attacked and beaten by segregationists in Montgomery, Alabama, May 20, 1961. Judge Johnson’s rulings stopped violent attacks against activists. In 1961, he ordered the Ku Klux Klan and Montogomery Police to stop the beating and harassment of Freedom Riders attempting to integrate interstate bus travel. The “Bloody Sunday” beatings of voting rights marchers in 1965 motivated Judge Johnson to overrule the law used to try to stop the Selma to Montgomery march. The Klan began to call Judge Johnson “the most hated man in Alabama.” Terrorists burned a cross on the lawn of his home, bombed his mother’s house and forced him and his family to live under constant federal protection for more than 20 years.

Johnson’s actions made him an outcast in the white society of Montgomery. His former law school classmate, George Wallace, called Johnson an “integrating, scallawagging, carpetbagging liar.” The Ku Klux Klan called him “the most hated man in Alabama,” and white students burned a cross on his lawn. The judge and his family received constant death threats. His elderly mother’s house was bombed, but she escaped injury and refused to move. Johnson and his family required continuous protection by federal agents from 1961 until 1975.

In numerous Southern states, African Americans were barred from voting through the discriminatory enforcement of literacy tests and poll taxes. Johnson’s decision in United States v. Alabama (1961) insisted that black persons be permitted to register if their application papers were equal to the performance of the least qualified white applicant accepted on the voting rolls. The city of Montgomery refused to reveal its voting registration records to the Department of Justice, but in United States v. City of Montgomery (1961) Johnson ordered the city of Montgomery to surrender its records.

TIME magazine featured Judge Johnson on the cover of this 1967 issue. To many, Judge Frank Johnson was one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called him a jurist who had “given the true meaning to the word justice.” TIME magazine described Johnson as “one of the most important men in America.” Journalist Bill Moyers said he had “altered forever the face of the South,” and “earned an enduring place in our history for his courage and wisdom.” In a career that spanned almost four decades — twenty-four years in Federal District Court in Alabama and thirteen years on an appeals court with wide jurisdiction in the South — Judge Johnson ordered the desegregation of public schools and colleges, arts, libraries, museums, airports, restaurants, restrooms, other public places, as well as the Alabama State Police. In a turbulent era, he was a towering figure.

Poorer districts of many states, including Alabama, had their voting strength diluted through arbitrary and unequal legislative districts. In the case of Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1961), Judge Johnson found that the city of Tuskegee had attempted to dilute black voting strength by redrawing the city limits to exclude black voters; Johnson struck down the new city plan as unconstitutional. In one of the most far-reaching decisions of all, Johnson found in Sims v. Frink (1962) that the state of Alabama had drawn its state legislative districts unequally, giving the residents of less populous counties more representation than those in more populous areas. Johnson compelled the state of Alabama to reapportion its districts in accord with the principle of “one man, one vote,” the principle that has guided reapportionment ever since.

Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. enters the Federal Court in Montgomery, Alabama, January 26, 1959, during one of many courtroom encounters with his old law school classmate, George C. Wallace, later Governor of Alabama.
1959: Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. enters the Federal Court in Montgomery, Alabama, during one of many courtroom encounters with his old law school classmate, George C. Wallace, later Governor of Alabama. Johnson was an uncompromising defender of U.S. civil liberties.

Although the Judge’s rulings in the voting rights cases were upheld by the Supreme Court, attempts to register black voters in the South were still met with violent resistance. In February 1965, state troopers charged a peaceful voting rights demonstration on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, firing tear gas and beating the protesters with clubs. After one of the protesters died of his wounds, Martin Luther King, Jr. called on clergy from all over the country to join him in a protest march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. George Wallace, who had since been elected Governor of Alabama, refused permission. In Williams v. Wallace (1965), Judge Johnson ordered that the road be opened to the marchers, citing “the enormity of the wrongs” being protested. Only days after the march, a white woman, Viola Liuzzo, who had driven to Alabama from Michigan to participate, was shot to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan. After an all-white jury acquitted the assassins, the Justice Department prosecuted them under the recently enacted Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the men were found guilty in the federal case, Judge Johnson handed down the maximum sentence permissible under the law. As in the Liuzzo case, all-white juries typically acquitted white defendants accused of attacking and murdering civil rights activists, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. In White v. Crook (1966), Johnson ruled that the state of Alabama must permit blacks to serve on juries.

Judge Frank M. Johnson in his chambers in the 1970s. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated Judge Johnson to be director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The appointment was widely acclaimed, but the Judge withdrew after undergoing heart surgery and facing a long recuperation. Two years later, President Carter named him to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. (© Office of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.)

Little by little, the last vestiges of legally sanctioned segregation gave way. In United States v. Alabama (1966), Judge Johnson found Alabama’s poll tax unconstitutional. His decision in Smith v. YMCA of Montgomery (1970) ordered the desegregation of the Montgomery chapter of the YMCA. The violence that had erupted in Montgomery and Selma arose in part from the collision of black protesters with all-white police forces. In NAACP v. Dothard (1974), Johnson required the state of Alabama to hire one black state trooper for every white state trooper until racial parity was achieved. As the precedent was applied across the country, all-white police forces gave way to law enforcement organizations more representative of the communities they serve. As these decisions were affirmed by higher courts, they became the basis for modern civil rights law and effected a transformation in American society that had seemed unthinkable only a few years before.

Judge Frank M. Johnson in his courtroom, the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama, 1978. (Courtesy of the Office of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.)
Judge Frank M. Johnson in his courtroom, the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama, 1978. He was a legendary federal jurist whose historic civil rights decisions “led to ostracism, cross-burnings and death threats, but helped to change the face of the segregationist South in the 1950s and the 1960s.” Judge Johnson first took the oath as a federal judge on October of 1955, just before his 37th birthday, making him the youngest federal judge in the country. Judge Frank Johnson’s influential and controversial rulings had far-reaching consequences toward achieving civil rights for African-Americans, inmates and the mentally ill. (Office of Judge Frank Johnson)

By 1975, the changes that Frank Johnson had helped make in American life were widely accepted, but the years of isolation had exacted a terrible price from the Judge’s family. The Johnsons’ only child, an adopted son, suffered from prolonged mental illness, aggravated by years of harassment and ostracism. At the age of 28, he committed suicide. To the end of his life, the Judge politely declined requests to discuss the tragedy with reporters or interviewers.

Once the center of violent controversy, Judge Johnson finally emerged as one of the most admired jurists in the country. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter asked Johnson to serve as Director of the FBI. Shortly after the nomination was announced, Johnson was diagnosed with an aneurysm of the abdominal aorta, requiring immediate surgery. Although Johnson’s appointment was approved by the Senate without a dissenting vote, Johnson withdrew his name from consideration while he was recovering. President Carter appointed Johnson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1979. Two years later, the Fifth Circuit was reorganized, and Judge Johnson was reassigned to the newly created Eleventh Circuit. Judge Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1995. He continued to serve on the federal bench until his death in 1999. His 1991 interview with the Academy of Achievement was conducted in the courtroom in Montgomery where he heard many of his most famous cases. In his honor, the old courthouse has been renamed the Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Federal Building.

Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, 15 Lee Street, Montgomery, Alabama. The Frank M. Johnson, Jr., Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is located on a parcel of land bounded by Lee, Court, Clayton, Catoma, and Church streets, and the historic Montgomery Bus Station, where a mob attacked the Freedom Riders in 1961.
In Montgomery, where Judge Frank Johnson was once a pariah, the Federal Court House was named in his honor. The Frank M. Johnson, Jr., Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is located on a parcel of land bounded by Lee, Court, Clayton, Catoma, and Church streets, and the historic Montgomery Bus Station, where a mob attacked the Freedom Riders in 1961. In 1993, the American Bar Association’s first Thurgood Marshall Award was presented to Judge Johnson as the person “who most exemplifies Justice Marshall’s spirit on behalf of protecting civil rights.”

Even before his death, a number of full-length biographies of Judge Johnson had appeared, including Taming the Storm by Jack Bass, and Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whose father headed the Justice Department from 1961 to 1964, at the height of the civil rights struggle. Subsequent generations of jurists have come to rely on the precedents established by Judge Johnson in his 44 years on the bench. With his steady, reasoned judgment and unflinching courage, Frank M. Johnson helped make the promise of the Constitution a reality for all Americans.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1978

At the height of the civil rights struggle, there was one place in the Deep South where African Americans fighting the region’s oppressive system of racial segregation could count on sure, impartial justice: Frank M. Johnson’s courtroom. With unblinking moral courage, Judge Frank M. Johnson upheld the Constitution and the law, insisting that all Americans be treated equally, regardless of color.

Judge Johnson’s fidelity to the Constitution did not endear him to his neighbors. The judge was denounced and threatened. His neighbors burned a cross on his lawn, and his wife and children were ostracized and harassed, but Frank Johnson would not back down, even after the Ku Klux Klan bombed his mother’s house.

A native Alabaman, Frank M. Johnson served as a federal judge for 44 years and lived to see centuries of oppressive customs overturned, and the state and the region he loved transformed. Segregation is now an almost unbelievable chapter of America’s past, thanks to the efforts of thousands of brave men and women who fought for civil rights, and a handful of courageous public servants like Frank M. Johnson.

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We want to touch on some of your most important civil rights cases. We could begin by turning back to 1955. I believe it was just three months after you ascended to the bench that a woman named Rosa Parks sparked a big boycott. What did she do that was so revolutionary?

Frank Johnson: She refused to get up from her seat that she was sitting in, in the white section of the bus and move to the back, which was designated as the section for black people. She got arrested. She had a lawyer named Clifford Durr that filed the case for her, challenging segregation on public facilities, and it involved state statutes. The law requires that three judges sit when the constitutionality of state statutes are involved. So the judge before whom the case is filed is automatically a member of the three-judge court. And then the rules require one circuit judge, and the other one can be a circuit or a district judge. So when the case was filed I wrote the chief judge and asked him to set up the three-judge court. So he designated the other two judges. Seybourn Lynne, district judge of Birmingham, before whom I practiced when I was a lawyer for a year, and Judge (Richard) Rives, who was a circuit judge and he lived here. After the case was submitted, we went back in my chambers, here on this floor. We heard the arguments here in this courtroom. And Judge Rives says, “Frank, you are the junior judge, how do you vote?” I said, “Well, I vote to declare it unconstitutional” — the segregation ordinances and the Alabama segregation laws on public transportation.

Rives asked Judge Lynne, and he said, “I would not give them any relief.” He said, “I don’t believe it’s unconstitutional.” And Judge Rives says, “I agree with Frank Johnson.” So Judge Lynne dissented, and Judge Rives and I declared it unconstitutional.

On what did you base that?

Frank Johnson: Well, it’s unconstitutional when you segregate people on public facilities on the basis of race. Brown v. Board of Education was a new case, decided in 1954, and you don’t need too much imagination or ingenuity to move the principles of Brown from the public school systems to the public transportation system.

A lot of people felt that was quite a leap to take.

Frank Johnson: I didn’t feel that way.

Were you aware of the importance of the decision?

Frank Johnson: I don’t think that I was conscious of the reaction that it would get. But a judge shouldn’t take that into consideration when he makes a decision, so it didn’t occur to me to try to evaluate what was going to be the public reaction to this decision.

After the Supreme Court upheld Judge Johnson's decision, Rosa Parks rides at the front of the bus. (© UPI/Bettman)
After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Judge Johnson’s decision, Rosa Parks rides at the front of the bus. (Bettman)

What was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in that first movement that developed from Rosa Parks’ action?

Frank Johnson: Dr. King sponsored a boycott, and stopped the blacks from riding the buses. I think the people that owned the buses were happier to see the decision that we wrote than anyone else, because they weren’t getting any riders. They couldn’t come out and take an open position in it. King was the leader. He played no direct lead in that case or any other case as far as I’m aware of, but he did inspire the black people.

What were the people of Montgomery so afraid of? Why did they feel the need of segregation on buses?

Frank Johnson: Afraid of each other. “What’s my neighbor going to say if I get on this bus and ride with these black people? What’s my employer going to do to me if I associate with them? What’s the people in the church going to do? Isolate me if I’m friendly to them, if I don’t support the segregation?” Afraid of each other? It’s the only thing that makes sense at all as to why, because there were a lot of people that were otherwise basically honest and fair. They were scared to death. Absolutely scared to death not to participate in segregation.

So peer pressure can be an evil thing.

Frank Johnson: Of course. That was peer pressure. That’s all it was.

How did the community react to that ruling? What kinds of personal responses were you getting?

Keys to success — Integrity

Frank Johnson: Pretty adverse. I had my telephone unlisted to keep my family from being harassed. But, my personality and my background and my heritage and all of that caused me not to do anything except just be stubborn. If you think I’m going to cave in on something like this, you better go get you something else to look for! No way. If I can’t do what’s right, I’ll quit.

How did you and your family actually experience the opposition to your ruling?

Frank Johnson: We have never been socialites. We belonged to the Montgomery Country Club, but we didn’t attend except on ceremonial occasions. I don’t remember any formal reaction. I’ve had people walk by on the street without speaking or something like that. But that’s their problem, it’s not my problem.

Didn’t somebody burn a cross on your lawn?

Frank Johnson: Yes. Some high school students. The FBI made a case against them. I recused myself. Judge Rives took their pleas of guilty. I called him on the telephone. I said, “Judge Rives, you ought to put those boys on probation. Don’t send those high school students to the penitentiary. All they were doing was implementing what they hear at their breakfast table.” And that’s what he did.

It got a little scarier when your mother was threatened. Tell us about that.

Keys to success — Courage

Frank Johnson: They set a bomb off under (my mother’s) car port. That was a few years after my father died. She had just gone upstairs from her kitchen and the bomb blew the windows out of the kitchen, all the way across the breakfast room, through the dining room and the other side of the house. She didn’t get hurt, and she didn’t get scared. She didn’t get intimidated. When I went over there a few minutes later, after I’d been called by the FBI, I said, “Mother, you ought to come over and spend the night with us.” She said, “I’m not leaving my home. I’m staying right here.” She refused to leave. She was a Kirkwood. Scottish. Tough. The FBI never did solve that case until about a year ago. I found out who did it. He was a Klansman. A big Klan leader from over here in Mississippi. He came over here and put it under there. I notified them formally as to who did it and where he lived. He’s moved to Virginia now, and he’s become an evangelist! Put “evangelist” in quotes. They went up and interviewed him, and I have a copy of the interview. So, he’s the one that did it. But they didn’t discover it. I found out about it.

How?

Frank Johnson: Accidentally. I don’t think I ought to reveal it.

Did he confess?

Frank Johnson: Oh yes. The United States Attorney had him down here in this building and interviewed him, and I have a copy of the interview where he admits to doing it. I was glad to learn who did it. I doubt if we have everything, but he’s admitted doing it. I think he had some associates here. He couldn’t have found a place on Southmont Drive in Montgomery at night if he didn’t have someone to help him.

It seems like such an incredibly vicious thing to do, to attack a judge’s mother.

Frank Johnson: Oh, a lot of things like that were done. He thought it was my house. That’s in the statement he gave the FBI. That may be true, because my father and I had the same name.

Judge Frank M. Johnson in his chambers at the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery in the 1960s. (Courtesy of the Office of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.)
Judge Frank M. Johnson in his chambers at the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery in the 1960s. Johnson set the standards in the South and often in the nation on voting rights, employment discrimination, affirmative action, the rights for mental patients to adequate care, and prison inmates to protection from inhuman conditions. But, it was his death knell for Jim Crow laws that was revered and reviled. When state courts failed to act forcefully to end racial violence — as in the case of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker from Detroit who was shot to death while riding in a car with a black man — Judge Frank Johnson sent the killers to jail on Federal civil rights charges.

Judge Johnson, you’ve clearly risked personal harm in making some of these decisions. A lot of other people would not bother to go out on a limb to such an extent, and make such unpopular decisions. What made you keep doing this?

Frank Johnson: My job. Scottish heritage. You can’t intimidate me. If you can be intimidated, you don’t have any business being a judge.

In 1965, you cleared the way for Dr. King and his followers to march from Selma to Montgomery. What were they trying to accomplish? Why were they marching?

Frank Johnson: Public protest against discrimination. No question but they had a right to protest publicly. They had a right to march. The biggest question in that case, and the biggest problem I had in the case, was the extent of the march, and trying to equalize their rights to use a public highway for 35 or 40 miles, and the right of people in business and people that are traveling to not lose it, the problems it placed on the state law enforcement people, and those things that you have to take into consideration. When I authorized the march, I took those into consideration. The right to march outweighed any rights that those that opposed it had. So if they want to march from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize their point, let them march. Give them protection. But keep half that highway open for people in business that need to travel. It’s another one of these “weigh this side and weigh that side” and let’s try to reach a just decision that won’t infringe too much on anyone, any more than absolutely necessary.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King on the five-day march to Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
March 25, 1965: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King lead a five-day march to Montgomery, Alabama. In 1965, Judge Frank Johnson issued an historic order that allowed Dr. King to lead a 52-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the denial of black voting rights. He did so after Alabama troopers clubbed marchers and used tear gas in a spectacle witnessed on television by a horrified nation, and after President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers. Judge Johnson in 1989, reflected on an era that had changed the South. “The civilizing function of a judge has been defined, I think, as ‘the removal of a sense of injustice’,” he said. “I have come to the firm conclusion that the American people revere the concept of justice, and their conscience tells them to obey the law once they understand what it is.” (© Bettmann Collections/CORBIS)

We understand President Johnson was kind of hanging in suspense, wondering what you were going to do in that case. Did you realize how significant it was?

Frank Johnson: No. Another lawsuit as far as I was concerned. Maybe I anticipated some public reaction, but I put the State Troopers under an injunction to give the marchers protection. I put George Wallace under an injunction not to interfere in it. They had a right to protest. The only problem in that case was the extent of the protest and how it infringed on other people’s rights.

In your decision, you referred to “enormous wrongs.”

Frank Johnson: That’s right. The extent of the wrong is taken into consideration when you are trying to determine whether an extensive protest is justified. If they had just deprived one person of the right to use a public fountain, then that wouldn’t have justified a march of 100,000 people from Selma to Montgomery on a public highway. But if you have general discrimination, throughout the state, on the right to vote and the right to do other basic things that citizens — white citizens — are entitled to, then you have a right to an extensive protest.

Wasn’t there a moral judgment in that interpretation?

Frank Johnson: Maybe. But it was not decided for moral purposes. It was for legal rights. It may have had a moral effect. A lot of legal decisions are morally right.

Are some morally wrong, too?

Frank Johnson: Maybe. Depends on your morals. A lot of people think that the right to abortion is morally wrong. The other side thinks the right to prohibit it is morally wrong. But you don’t decide cases on the basis of whether it’s morally right or morally wrong if you are determining what the law is.

Have you had to make decisions that you felt were morally wrong?

Frank Johnson: I can’t remember one that comes to mind immediately.

The desegregation of the public schools was one of the most difficult battles in your career, wasn’t it?

Frank Johnson: That’s because of the emotions that get involved in it.

Keys to success — Perseverance

Finally, I just entered an order desegregating over 100 public schools in the state of Alabama. Took the whole thing over. And that was the beginning of the end of school segregation in Alabama. Stopped focusing just on one school, one small school system, or one large school system. Put them all in. “You get us a plan that will desegregate. Eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, file a formal plan, put your superintendents and the boards of education in each school system under an injunction to do that.” So I held court here on Saturday. Every Saturday for six months. You had over 100 school systems. Let them bring those plans in. Present them. Hear the other side. Either adopt them or send them back to revise it.

That must have been a lot of work.

Frank Johnson: Sure. Interferes with your fishing too.

To what extent did your own feelings of morality about these issues enter your decisions?

Keys to success — Integrity

Frank Johnson: I didn’t sign on to be a federal judge to render moral decisions. I signed on as a federal judge to follow the law, and rule constitutionally-wise. So people have asked me that before, “Did the moral problems in this cause you to do that?” No. Never looked on any desegregation case with the moral standards in mind. I wasn’t hired to be a moral judge. I wasn’t hired to be a preacher or an evangelist. I’m hired to apply the law.