Judge Frank Johnson Heads Home to the Hills

By Howell Raines (Howell Raines is editorial page editor of The New York Times and a native Alabamian)

Like so many of the public figures of his generation, Judge Frank Minis Johnson Jr. was marked irrevocably by the place of his birth. It is unthinkable that, in death, he should rest anywhere else. So on Tuesday he will be received by the hills of the "Free State of Winston,'' that remote, impoverished and contrary jurisdiction where he came to life in 1918.

As one who knows that territory well, I can tell you that the strength of those Alabama hills was in Johnson. Its patriotic history as the center of Unionist sentiment in Civil War Alabama is woven like a silver thread through Johnson's interpretations of the Constitution.

But I can also tell you that birth geography cannot fully explain the unflagging moral courage and legal brilliance that emanated from this lanky, back-country lawyer during what was a season of cowardice and failure for most white Southerners.

During the high-tide years of the civil rights movement, when Gov. George Wallace dictated the political reality of Alabama, Johnson was the counter reality.

Wallace prattled incessantly about his feckless crusade to preserve segregation. Johnson dismantled it, starting with a breathtaking ruling in 1955 that applied the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision to buses and other public services. Ten years later, he overrode Wallace and allowed the Selma march to go forward.

These decisions carried a message for Southerners that extended beyond the law. Southerners of all colors had long understood that segregation could survive only if the Constitution was kept in chains, as it had been since Reconstruction with Washington's implicit approval. Johnson unlocked those chains and used them to swing the Constitution like a wrecking ball against a series of barriers to civil liberties.

To Wallace's dismay, Johnson began to be called "the real governor of Alabama.'' He used court rulings to correct Wallace's mistakes in everything from voting rights to prison conditions. Reforms that were achieved at the ballot box in Georgia, Florida and even Mississippi had to be imposed by federal court order in Alabama.

"Well, he did what the governor was supposed to do,'' said one of my longtime friends, Tennant McWilliams, a dean at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. "The interesting thing is that Alabama never got a New South governor, but it did get a judge who was more progressive and liberal than any of those governors, and he did more than all those New South governors did. He did all that he could do.''

For a generation, the novelistic saga of George Wallace and Frank Johnson has been everyone's favorite chapter in the Alabama political catechism.

They had been law school buddies, and Johnson's wife, Ruth, had befriended the brash and unfashionable Wallace. Decades later, alone and crippled, Wallace told the Johnsons that for old times' sake he wanted to be forgiven for stirring up public hatred against them to the point that their lives were in danger. Johnson sent back word that "if he wanted forgiveness, he'd have to get it from the Lord.''

The split had been probably unmendable since 1959. First, Wallace defied one of Johnson's court orders as a way of promoting his gubernatorial hopes, then came skulking into the judge's kitchen under cover of night to beg to stay out of jail. The heart of Wallace's problem, really, was that he always looked like a skulker when measured against Johnson, and the governor died in 1998 knowing that was exactly how history would measure him.

The judgment of history on Frank Johnson will, I think, be straightforward.

He stands with Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black as one of the two most important Alabamians of the century in national affairs. As for courage, Johnson stands alone, for he remained in the violent heartland of segregation even as he was outlawing it.

He had a stainless-steel core, yet he was not a steely man. On the personal side, which I glimpsed a few times in his last years, he had an ambling, hill-country fondness for down-home yarns and the outdoor life.

I went fishing with him once on the Suwannee River in Florida. "It's time to salute the Constitution,'' he announced at noon on the first day, producing a bottle of George Dickel, his favorite sour mash. Those words and the accompanying shot of Dickel were, it turned out, a Johnson fishing ritual known to all his friends.

Last week, when I learned of his death, I remembered that moment and thought that, indeed, the man's entire life had been a salute to the Constitution.


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