The Most Hated Man in Alabama

The Most Hated Man in Alabama

Reviewed by John Egerton

Vol. 15, No. 2, 1993, pp. 20-22

Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Frank M. Johnson, Jr., and the South’s Fight over Civil Rights, by Jack Bass (Doubleday, New York, 1993, 512 pages).

The Judge: The Life & Opinions of Alabama’s Frank M. Johnson Jr., by Frank Sikora (Black Belt Press, Montgomery, 1992, 340 pages).

The scene was electrifying: More than 25,000 citizens, most of them black, were massed on Dexter Avenue in front of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery on a raw and rainy March morning in 1965. They had marched from Selma, fifty miles away, in a peaceful demonstration for the unhindered right vote, a right soon to be guaranteed them by a new federal law.

Their leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., once the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church nearby, stood at the very spot where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office as president of the Confederate States of America one hundred and four years before. “Glory, glory, hallelujah!” King shouted.

Inside the Capitol, Governor George C. Wallace parted the curtains at his office window and gazed on this amazing drama with scowling, sneering bitterness. He had used every legal weapon at his disposal to prevent it, and he had failed.

A few blocks down the street, at a window in the federal building, Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., the man whose decision had assured King of victory and Wallace of defeat also watched as the marchers passed on the street below, singing and shouting joyfully. He felt a sense of assurance and satisfaction, even pride—not because he was pro-King or anti-Wallace, but because the rule of law had prevailed.

“From the moment I issued the order permitting that march,” he said later, “I had been certain that I had done what was right according to the laws of this nation.” And to that he added, on another occasion, this further concluding thought: “You can’t have a government like we have, a republic with a constitution like we have, and permit discrimination against people on the basis of race or color. You can’t have that. It runs contrary to the form of government we have.”

It is Frank Johnson’s understanding of “the form of government we have,” and his performance as an interpreter of its ambiguities, that provide the sum and substance of these two biographies. Jack Bass and Frank Sikora, veteran Southern journalists and court-watchers, have drawn on their long acquaintance with the judge, his opinions, and his times to craft portraits of impressive depth and clarity.

That they are essentially admiring portraits is hardly surprising, and altogether understandable. Johnson’s quiet courage in calling shots as he saw them brought down the wrath of the white multitude upon him—all manner of threats and even some attempts on his life—but he suffered the hostility without complaint, and stayed the course, and now he hears some of his harshest critics acknowledge that he was right.

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Even George Wallace, who in the 1960s had demanded Johnson’s impeachment, smeared him as a traitor and a mentally unbalanced tyrant and said he needed “a barbed-wire enema,” sent word through the judge’s wife, Ruth Johnson, that he was “sorry for all the heartache I’ve caused you and all the trouble I’ve given you for the things I’ve said. I was wrong.”

There is so much drama here: the Montgomery bus boycott school desegregation, the “Freedom Riders,” voter registration, reapportionment, the efficient court that brooked no disrespect for the law of for his authority as its interpreter. From the bench he was as intimidating as a Marine colonel. Only from a distance or in cowardly anonymity did his most venomous critics dare to threaten him, bombing his mother’s home in l968.

If Judge Johnson’s Lincolnesque qualities invite hero worship (he does come across as something of a twentieth-century emancipator, tall, quiet, brave, brooding), his down-to-earth qualities tend to balance the picture. The Bass book is especially useful in detailing Johnson’s family background and the elements of his character and personality.

The personal side of the man makes his performance as a judge seem all the more intriguing. He came up in a pocket of independent Republicans—Unionists who had spurned the Confederacy—north Alabama’s Winston County, where his father was a probate judge. Frank, Jr., oldest of seven children, married Ruth Jenkins in 1938, when he was twenty and she was eighteen.

They have been together ever since—through college and law school, World War II (he in the Army, she in the Navy), law practice in the little town of Jasper, a stint as U.S. attorney in Birmingham, and almost forty years on the federal bench. Personal tragedy has shadowed their lives; their only child, an adopted son, committed suicide in 1975, when he was twenty-six.

One of Johnson’s classmates and casual friends at the University of Alabama law school was George Wallace, who came across then as “a genuine Franklin Roosevelt socialist.” The more conservative Johnson was less drawn to politics than he was to the law, and he immersed himself in it so deeply that he graduated at the top of his class in 1943.

His support of Dwight Eisenhower for President in 1952 soon brought him an assignment as U.S. attorney, and in 1955, when Eisenhower named him to the bench serving the middle district of Alabama, Frank Johnson became the youngest federal judge in the country.

His first ten years in the Montgomery courtroom coincided with the most tumultuous period of Southern history since the Civil War. This tense and emotional time—the civil rights decade, 1955-65—is the primary focus of Frank Sikora’s book. Drawing extensively from interviews with the judge and from court transcripts, he recounts and dramatizes the cases that challenged and finally overturned the segregation laws. Sikora, an Alabama journalist since the mid-1960s, interviewed Judge Johnson on numerous occasions over a thirteen-year period. Roughly one-third of The Judge is in Johnson’s own words.

Jack Bass’s book is richer in the historical context surrounding his subject, and in legal analysis; like Sikora, he also makes extensive use of interviews and transcripts. Bass was a reporter in the Carolinas in the 1960s. Previous books on Southern politics and contemporary history include Unlikely Heroes, another story of Southern judges and the civil rights issue.

All in all, these two books complement each other nicely. Frank Johnson comes out of them as another of the South’s unlikely heroes, perhaps one of its greatest—a man of courage and integrity making tough, fair, wise decisions and delivering them in a calm, clear, firm voice while all about him the storms of controversy raged.

Martin Luther King once described Judge Johnson as “a man who gave true meaning to the word ‘justice.'” The two men met only once outside the courtroom. Bass recounts the occasion:

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After the hearings adjourned one day, Johnson stepped onto a crowded elevator in the court house and saw King. The judge nodded in recognition and said, “How are you, Dr. King?”

King nodded back and said, “Fine. How are you, Judge?”

That was all.

Johnson’s halo, like King’s—like every all-too-human saint’s—has sometimes slipped a little, and both Bass and Sikora wisely let some tiny warts show through. Thus we see Johnson the tobacco-chewer, the whiskey-sipper, the mild cusser, the religious skeptic. In other words, Johnson the ordinary fellow, the guy who grows roses and makes furniture and fishes, who is, when he is with his wife and his closest friends, a warm and caring and sometimes funny man.

The only inconsistency that I could find in these two accounts concerns the judge’s eyes—eyes that “can cut someone in two,” remembered one fearful litigant, or that “look at you like he’s aiming down a rifle barrel,” recalled another. So are they blue, as Jack Bass declares, or brown, as Frank Sikora maintains?

Judge Johnson may have to render his own opinion to settle the matter once and for all.

John Egerton is currently working on a book about the South during the period from Roosevelt to Brown with “lots of SRC history woven in.”