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If you like Frank M. Johnson's story, you might also like:
Hank Aaron,
David Boies,
Jimmy Carter,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
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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
ADA Legacy Project
Johnson's Decisions

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Frank Johnson
Frank Johnson
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Frank Johnson Interview (page: 7 / 9)

Presidential Medal of Freedom

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  Frank Johnson

Looking back on your career as a judge, what role do you think luck or fate has played in your life?

Frank Johnson: You don't buy, or work for, or aim for federal judgeships. You have to be in the right place at the right time, with the right qualifications. There are a lot of great lawyers that wanted to be federal judges that were not in the right place at the right time. I was. I didn't plan it. It's something you can't plan. When I was practicing law, President Eisenhower wanted me to be the United States attorney in Birmingham. I agreed to accept it for two years, because I didn't want to leave my law firm any longer than that. At the end of two years, the district judge here, Judge Kennamer, had died. I stayed three more months because my name was being mentioned. I never did go back to my firm as a lawyer. I moved from the United States Attorney's office, as United States Attorney, down here to district judge.

What do you think made President Eisenhower choose you?

Frank Johnson Interview Photo
Frank Johnson: In 99 percent of the cases, judges are appointed because they are in the right place at the right time, and associated with the political party that controls the appointments. My people had been Republicans since the Civil War, so I met those qualifications. And age-wise, I was a successful trial lawyer, had practiced considerably in federal courts in north Alabama, Birmingham, Huntsville. So, I was in the right place at the right time.

What kind of work did you do for Eisenhower in his campaign?

Frank Johnson: I was his state manager for Veterans for Eisenhower.

Do you think he was rewarding you for your efforts on the campaign?

Frank Johnson: I doubt if he ever knew that. No. The Republican Party knew it, and they are the ones that made the recommendation. Eisenhower didn't know me until he was ready to appoint me. He would not appoint anyone a federal judge unless he met them and talked to them personally. That's the first time I ever met him. All of these soldiers tell you about seeing Eisenhower and getting acquainted with him while in Normandy. That's hogwash. You don't do that with a four-star General. The first time I ever met and talked with him was in the Oval Office.

What was that like?

Frank Johnson: He was interested in the qualifications of everyone he appointed. He is the only president I know of that set up the rule. There may have been some sense then that they would never appoint one unless he had met them and talked to them. So you had to go to the Oval Office for an interview. He took a lot of pride in the people he appointed to federal courts. And he appointed some good ones.

You've mentioned seeing Ku Klux Klan members sitting in this courtroom. What was that like?

Frank Johnson Interview Photo
Frank Johnson: Well, they didn't wear their uniforms, or whatever they call them, bed sheets. Your FBI knew a lot of Klan members. I kept a list of every Klan member in every Klan in my desk, still have it. Knew who they were. Knew what business they were in. Knew what the tag number on their automobile was. And when they come to court, you know who they are. They have a right to come to court. Sit, watch, listen.

What cases were they here for?

Frank Johnson: Oh, a number of cases, any of them that involved segregation or desegregation, the right to vote. Basic rights cases in which they had an interest. When I put the Klan under an injunction, they had the right to come.

Why did you keep a list of all the license plates and stuff?

Frank Johnson: I wanted to know who they were. I wanted to know who I was dealing with when I was dealing with jurors. I checked my jury list to see how many Klan were on the jury, so I would know who they were. You want to know what's going on. I did.

When it came time in the '70s to deal with mental hospital reforms and prison reforms, you made a point of not visiting those places. Why was that?

Frank Johnson: That's right. I don't want to go see all those people lined up there in bad places.

What was going on in the mental hospitals that you felt was unfair?

Frank Johnson: I didn't have any feeling about how the state mental institutions were being operated until the evidence was presented and I considered it. After I did consider it, it became obvious to me that they were being treated in an inhuman manner and in an inhuman environment. They have a constitutional right, not one to keep from being put in a mental institution, but if the state puts them in one, they have to put them in an environment that doesn't violate their constitutional rights. That's what the case was about, and that's what the decision was about. You either stop running a state mental hospital -- stop operating one -- or operate one according to what the appropriate standards are. They couldn't stop operating one; a state has to have a mental institution. So the only option they had was to comply with it. I had experts that inspected them, and they set up the standards, and those are the standards that I followed in requiring the state to meet. I'm not an expert in prisons. I'm not an expert in mental hospitals. But I can evaluate experts' testimony.

What were these experts saying?

Frank Johnson: They brought pictures. They said the patients weren't getting any treatment. All they were doing was being incarcerated with no treatment.

Conditions were pretty awful, too, weren't they?

Frank Johnson: Yes, they were. They put those young people up there in Partlow, where their arms were tied, and all that sort of stuff. The place had flies all over it. I saw a picture of a little girl with flies all over her face with her arms tied. Scandalous. Scandalous. But Alabama is not the only state that did that. You had other states, not just Southern states that did the same thing. But this case down here set up the standards that were later adopted nearly all over the country. Not just in the mental hospitals, but in the penitentiaries, too.

Didn't Governor George Wallace say you were trying to make a prison into a hotel?

Frank Johnson: That's politics. He knew better than that. He said a lot of things about my decisions that were just for political purposes. He knew better than that. He's apologized publicly for all of those statements.

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