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If you like Frank M. Johnson's story, you might also like:
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Frank Johnson in the Achievement Curriculum area:
The Road to Civil Rights
ADA Legacy Project
Frank Johnson Interview
Presidential Medal of Freedom
March 16, 1991
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
How did the community react to that ruling? What kinds of personal responses were you getting?
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.
[ Key to Success ] Integrity
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.
Frank Johnson: They set a bomb off under her 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.
[ Key to Success ] Courage
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 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.
What were the people of Montgomery so afraid of? Why did they feel the need of segregation?
Frank Johnson: Afraid of each other.
So peer pressure can be an evil thing.
Frank Johnson: Of course. That was peer pressure. That's all it was.
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