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If you like Frank M. Johnson's story, you might also like:
Hank Aaron,
David Boies,
Jimmy Carter,
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Frank Johnson in the Achievement Curriculum area:
The Road to Civil Rights

Related Links:
U.S. Courts
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Johnson's Decisions

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Frank Johnson
Frank Johnson
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Frank Johnson Interview (page: 3 / 9)

Presidential Medal of Freedom

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  Frank Johnson

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.

Frank Johnson Interview Photo

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.

I'd like to talk about the Viola Liuzzo case. Who was she? What happened to her?

Frank Johnson: I didn't know her, but she was some lady that came down here from Michigan, drove her own car to participate in the Selma march. The facts that came out after she was killed revealed all of this. I had never heard of her, but after the march from Selma to Montgomery, a lot of these people -- and there were thousands of them -- didn't have any way back to Selma. She was using her car to take them back.

What race was she?

Frank Johnson: She was white. She had just taken a load of people back to Selma, and she and a young black, about 15 or 16 years old, were coming back to pick up another load.

These Klansmen, that were down here to see what they could do, to intimidate or something, had been here to Montgomery and watched the march some, the marchers coming, and then they went to Selma. They saw her, or met her, as they were going to Selma, and she was coming back here with a young black sitting up front with her, with a Michigan tag on, and they turned around and took after her. Of course, the Klansmen didn't realize that one of the people in there was an FBI informer. That's the reason we knew all about it. He had been an FBI informant for years, and a member of the Klan. The FBI had informants in every Klan. Stupid if you don't, you know. You don't know what's going on, you don't know what's going to happen before it happens. So, the FBI informant that was in the Klan car reported it, as to who did it, and I tried them, right here in this courtroom.

They had already been acquitted of murder in the state court, hadn't they?

Frank Johnson: That's right. They were acquitted in Lowndes County, the state prosecution. The only thing they were charged with here was violating her civil rights. They were convicted. They got the maximum: a ten-year sentence. That's what the statute was. I gave each of them a maximum sentence. They appealed it. One of them died while the appeal was going on. I've forgotten his name. But the other two served their sentences.

Isn't it kind of a euphemism to "violate someone's civil rights" by murdering them?

Frank Johnson Interview Photo
Frank Johnson: That's right. The federal government doesn't get involved in basic criminal laws. That's still left up to the states. We have a federal law that prohibits you from murdering the President or federal judges, but not just an ordinary citizen on the state highways. That's not a federal violation, except violating civil rights. That's the only thing they could charge them with in the federal court.

The jurors didn't reach that verdict immediately. Could you tell us about that train of events?

Frank Johnson: I don't know how long they stayed out. I don't know what goes on in the jury room. All I know is what goes on in the courtroom. They brought back in a guilty verdict.

Didn't they first say they were deadlocked?

Frank Johnson: Oh yes. That's not unusual for a jury foreman to come back in and say, "Judge, we've been deliberating this case six hours now, and we can't reach a verdict. We are deadlocked." I say, "You haven't been discussing it long enough. Go back to the jury room." I said, "It took several days to try this case, you go and stay in the jury room." Sent him back. I think I sent them back two or three times. They didn't want to return a verdict. Some jurors were scared. You had the Klan as defendants. They were being asked to convict Ku Klux Klan members. They were scared of them. But they did. I gave them the maximum sentence. Ten years. One of them died even before he got to the penitentiary. The other two served their sentences.

You said afterwards that this was the only verdict the jury could have reached.

Frank Johnson: That's right. It was the only verdict they could have reached and do what the oath requires them to do.

There was plenty of evidence?

Frank Johnson: Oh yes. A lot. They didn't even testify. They would have had another ten-year sentence for perjury.

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This page last revised on Apr 06, 2012 14:45 EST
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