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The Road to Civil Rights
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Frank Johnson Interview (page: 2 / 9)
Presidential Medal of Freedom
You've said that you hoped most people in the South grew to support your decisions, and believed it was the right thing to do, even though they themselves might not have been able to speak out. Do you think that's the case?
Frank Johnson: I think it's reached that point now, that they accept rulings that guarantee equal rights to black people, and expect them. They realize that it's something our Constitution requires. It had to be, otherwise you are going to have to go back and revoke their citizenship. They have the same rights as a citizen of the United States as a white person. There is no way you can justify a position that differs from that.
To what extent did your own feelings of morality about these issues enter your decisions?
Frank Johnson: Morality didn't enter my mind.
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.
[ Key to Success ] Integrity
Were these decisions fairly clear-cut to you, or did you have some real conflicts?
Frank Johnson: I had no problems with desegregation cases. Discrimination on the basis of race is basically unconstitutional. I don't care whether you are on a bus, or anywhere else. You run into some problems when you get into genuine private clubs, but that wasn't what we were involved in. I respect the right of people that want to have private organizations. I think they have the right to do that. But when the organization reaches the point that it becomes a public organization, then the blacks have a right to come in.
You eventually called for the desegregation all public places in Montgomery. How did that come about?
Frank Johnson: After the bus decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court, the restaurants and the other public places voluntarily consented. They didn't put it in the paper, but when the blacks went in, they served them. We didn't have to enter any other decisions. I don't remember another desegregation case. Because the affirmance of our case was by the Supreme Court of the United States, and it had the effect of desegregating public transportation all over the United States. Other areas had some of that desegregation, not just the South. I think Auburn University turned down a black student, he filed a case, and I ordered him admitted without even a trial, on a motion for summary judgment, we call it. He came back later and said he wanted a place in one of their dormitories. I ordered the university to do that. The last report I had, he was the only one living in the dormitory. He had a lot of room, a private bath. But all that's over now. They welcome the blacks at the University of Alabama, all of the public education places. I don't know of any segregation problems we have in this section of the country anymore.
United States v. Alabama, in 1959, was a voter registration case which led to national reforms. Can you tell us what that case was all about?
Frank Johnson: That was about discrimination in registering to vote.
Black people were not welcome to register. Each county had a Board of Registrars, and they gave examinations and they were very difficult. They used different standards for grading them. When Mrs. Johnson and I moved to Montgomery, in 1955, we had to go to the Board of Registrars and take a very complicated examination. The case finally came to my court, and after taking evidence in the case, I decided that I needed to determine the standards that were being applied by the boards in registering whites, and then issue an injunction requiring they apply those same standards to black applicants. Well, it turned out that there really weren't any standards. An illiterate white could go get registered. And that's what we wound up doing. Registering every one that comes, if they are a citizen.
This decision brought a lot of criticism from your old classmate at the University of Alabama Law School, George Wallace. What did he say at the time?
Frank Johnson: He said things to the papers, the TV, the radio, and anyone who would listen. He was running for governor. He was a politician. He has recognized and publicly admitted that he used some questionable methods. He has apologized for those. He has health problems now (1991) and I am not going to go into any details about Governor Wallace. But he has apologized publicly for everything he did. And I'm sure he's asked for forgiveness privately.
How did that case affect national voters' rights?
Frank Johnson: It had a tremendous effect, particularly in the South. When you put the registrars under an injunction, telling them they must apply the same standards in evaluating applications to vote by black people that they've been applying to white people, then if they don't start registering the blacks the same way they do the whites, they are in contempt. So all you have to do down here in this section of the country now is to go to the Board of Registrars and sign up. You don't have to fill out these big, long, stupid forms.
You also ruled against the state's poll tax. What was your reasoning there?
Frank Johnson: Well, the right to vote is a basic right in this country. It is one of the basic rights that a citizen gets, and I ruled in that case that you shouldn't be required to pay to vote. That's what it was. I declared it unconstitutional. Wiped it out. I don't think we even heard an appeal in that case.
What was the poll tax all about? What were they trying to accomplish?
Frank Johnson: I don't think it was enough money to make up much of their budget. It was just another hurdle to exercising basic rights.
Were they specifically trying to keep black voters from registering?
Frank Johnson: And poor whites. It was just as bad on them as it was on poor blacks.
You also issued the first order for reapportionment in American history. Didn't that in some ways anticipate the Supreme Court?
Frank Johnson: I never decided cases trying to anticipate what the Supreme Court is going to do. Never.
Can you tell us about that case?
Frank Johnson: It just tried to make representation in the state legislature on a just basis instead of on an unjust basis.
Why hadn't anyone done that before?
Frank Johnson: Well, we've made a lot of progress in the last 50 years. People didn't challenge the political establishment. They were afraid to. It cost money to do it. So you went to some of these legal organizations for taking on those cases. In some instances, private lawyers did it. People have become conscious about their basic constitutional rights as a citizen in the last 35, 40 years.
Is the concept of civil rights and human rights that recent?
Frank Johnson: It's been a part of our constitution since it was first set up, but it wasn't implemented until the '50s, '60s, and '70s.
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This page last revised on Apr 06, 2012 14:45 EDT
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