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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
Profile of Frank Johnson Biography of Frank Johnson Interview with Frank Johnson Frank Johnson Photo Gallery

Frank Johnson Biography

Presidential Medal of Freedom

Frank Johnson Date of birth: October 30, 1918
Date of death: July 23, 1999

Print Frank Johnson Biography Print Biography

  Frank Johnson

Frank Minis Johnson, Jr. was born and raised in Winston County, near Haleyville in the highlands of Northern Alabama. Historically, the hill country had not been part of the plantation system of the Old South, and its people long prided themselves on their independence. Johnson graduated from the University of Alabama and earned a law degree from the University's law school in 1943. Immediately after law school, he entered the United States Army and participated in the Normandy landing during the Allied invasion of Europe. He was wounded in battle, but recovered and returned to active duty. He carried the bullet in his body for the rest of his life.

Frank Johnson Biography Photo
On completing his military service, Johnson returned to Winston County, and practiced law in the small city of Jasper. Although the Democratic party dominated Southern politics at the time, Johnson became active in the Republican Party, attending the party's national convention in 1948. In 1952, he supported the presidential campaign of his wartime commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Johnson headed Veterans for Eisenhower in Alabama. After Eisenhower's victory, Johnson was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas rocked Southern society to its foundations. The Supreme Court found the racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional, overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine that had prevailed in the American legal system for more than 50 years. Communities across America, particularly in the South, wrestled with the Court's instruction that the public schools be integrated "with all deliberate speed." From school boards to state houses and governors' mansions, Southern politicians vowed to resist the Court's order. At the same time, a reinvigorated civil rights movement resolved to test the new legal climate. Responsibility for applying the Supreme Court rulings to local cases would fall to the federal judges, but many of these were established figures in their communities, reluctant to incur the wrath of their staunchly segregationist neighbors.

Frank Johnson Biography Photo
In 1955, President Eisenhower appointed the 37-year-old Frank Johnson to serve as Judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Johnson faced an immediate test when an Alabama law permitting bus lines to segregate passengers by race was challenged in court. The segregation of Montgomery's buses drew national attention when the courageous action of Rosa Parks sparked a boycott of the city's bus system, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The first Montgomery bus case to come to Johnson's courtroom was Browder v. Gayle (1956). Johnson held that the Brown decision applied to public transportation as well as public schools, and that the statute permitting segregation in buses was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld Johnson's opinion in Browder, and the city buses were integrated, but segregation persisted in buses traveling between cities in the South, and the bus lines maintained separate waiting rooms. Young activists known as the Freedom Riders set out to force the issue.

Frank Johnson Biography Photo
When a group of Freedom Riders, including future Congressman John R. Lewis, were beaten in the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Terminal, with the acquiescence of the local police, Johnson enjoined the Ku Klux Klan and the police chief of Montgomery from future actions against the protesters. In the same decision (United States v. U.S. Klans, 1961), Judge Johnson also enjoined the Freedom Riders from interfering with the operation of the interstate bus lines. In a separate case, Lewis v. Greyhound (1961), Johnson mandated the desegregation of the bus depots.

Johnson's subsequent decisions on public accommodations forced the integration of libraries and agricultural services. While cities and businesses in the South grudgingly submitted to the Court's decisions, local school boards continued to drag their feet on school integration. In Lee v. Macon County Board of Education (1963), Johnson issued the first statewide desegregation order.

Frank Johnson Biography Photo
Johnson's actions made him an outcast in the white society of Montgomery. His former law school classmate, George Wallace, called Johnson an "integrating, scallawagging, carpetbagging liar." The Ku Klux Klan called him "the most hated man in Alabama" and white students burned a cross on his lawn. The judge and his family received constant death threats. His elderly mother's house was bombed, but she escaped injury and refused to move. Johnson and his family required continuous protection by federal agents from 1961 until 1975.

In numerous southern states, African Americans were barred from voting through the discriminatory enforcement of literacy tests and poll taxes. Johnson's decision in United States v. Alabama (1961) insisted that black persons be permitted to register if their application papers were equal to the performance of the least qualified white applicant accepted on the voting rolls. The city of Montgomery refused to reveal its voting registration records to the Department of Justice, but in United States v. City of Montgomery (1961) Johnson ordered the city of Montgomery to surrender its records.

Poorer districts of many states, including Alabama, had their voting strength diluted through arbitrary and unequal legislative districts. In the case of Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1961), Judge Johnson found that the city of Tuskegee had attempted to dilute black voting strength by redrawing the city limits to exclude black voters; Johnson struck down the new city plan as unconstitutional. In one of the most far-reaching decisions of all, Johnson found in Sims v. Frink (1962) that the state of Alabama had drawn its state legislative districts unequally, giving the residents of less populous counties more representation than those in more populous areas. Johnson compelled the state of Alabama to reapportion its districts in accord with the principle of "one man, one vote," the principle that has guided reapportionment ever since.

Frank Johnson Biography Photo
Although the Judge's rulings in the voting rights cases were upheld by the Supreme Court, attempts to register black voters in the South were still met with violent resistance. In February 1965, state troopers charged a peaceful voting rights demonstration on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, firing tear gas and beating the protesters with clubs. After one of the protesters died of his wounds, Martin Luther King, Jr. called on clergy from all over the country to join him in a protest march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. George Wallace, who had since been elected Governor of Alabama, refused permission. In Williams v. Wallace (1965), Judge Johnson ordered that the road be opened to the marchers, citing "the enormity of the wrongs" being protested.

Only days after the march, a white woman, Viola Liuzzo, who had driven to Alabama from Michigan to participate, was shot to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan. After an all-white jury acquitted the assassins, the Justice Department prosecuted them under the recently enacted Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the men were found guilty in the federal case, Judge Johnson handed down the maximum sentence permissible under the law. As in the Liuzzo case, all-white juries typically acquitted white defendants accused of attacking and murdering civil rights activists, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. In White v. Crook (1966), Johnson ruled that the state of Alabama must permit blacks to serve on juries.

Frank Johnson Biography Photo
Little by little, the last vestiges of legally sanctioned segregation gave way. In United States v. Alabama (1966), Judge Johnson found Alabama's poll tax unconstitutional. His decision in Smith v. YMCA of Montgomery (1970) ordered the desegregation of the Montgomery chapter of the YMCA. The violence that had erupted in Montgomery and Selma arose in part from the collision of black protesters with all-white police forces. In NAACP v. Dothard (1974), Johnson required the state of Alabama to hire one black state trooper for every white state trooper until racial parity was achieved. As the precedent was applied across the country, all-white police forces gave way to law enforcement organizations more representative of the communities they serve. As these decisions were affirmed by higher courts, they became the basis for modern civil rights law and effected a transformation in American society that had seemed unthinkable only a few years before.

By 1975, the changes that Frank Johnson had helped make in American life were widely accepted, but the years of isolation had exacted a terrible price from the Judge's family. The Johnsons' only child, an adopted son, suffered from prolonged mental illness, aggravated by years of harassment and ostracism. At the age of 28, he committed suicide. To the end of his life, the Judge politely declined requests to discuss the tragedy with reporters or interviewers.

Frank Johnson Biography Photo
Once the center of violent controversy, Judge Johnson finally emerged as one of the most admired jurists in the country. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter asked Johnson to serve as Director of the FBI. Shortly after the nomination was announced, Johnson was diagnosed with an aneurysm of the abdominal aorta, requiring immediate surgery. Although Johnson's appointment was approved by the Senate without a dissenting vote, Johnson withdrew his name from consideration while he was recovering. President Carter appointed Johnson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1979. Two years later, the Fifth Circuit was reorganized, and Judge Johnson was reassigned to the newly created Eleventh Circuit. Judge Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1995. He continued to serve on the federal bench until his death in 1999. His 1991 interview with the Academy of Achievement was conducted in the courtroom in Montgomery where he heard many of his most famous cases. In his honor, the old courthouse has been renamed the Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Federal Building.

Even before his death, a number of full-length biographies of Judge Johnson had appeared, including Taming the Storm by Jack Bass, and Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whose father headed the Justice Department from 1961 to 1964, at the height of the civil rights struggle. Subsequent generations of jurists have come to rely on the precedents established by Judge Johnson in his 44 years on the bench. With his steady, reasoned judgment and unflinching courage, Frank M. Johnson helped make the promise of the Constitution a reality for all Americans.

This page last revised on Apr 18, 2012 11:56 EDT
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