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FBI Ties Preacher’s Son to School Arson : Arrest: Christopher Lynn Johnson has been indicted in the 1994 fire at a rural Alabama high school where racial tensions were high.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The FBI arrested the son of a black protest leader Thursday and charged him with burning down an Alabama high school last August where a ban on interracial dating had inflamed racial tensions.

Christopher Lynn Johnson, 25, the son of the Rev. Emmett Johnson, was indicted for arson and for possession of an unregistered destructive device--a paper bag filled with kerosene-soaked dirt-- that allegedly was used to start the fire at the Randolph County High School in rural Wedowee, Ala., about 80 miles east of Birmingham.

Before the fire, Emmett Johnson had formed an alternative “freedom school” for 160 black students who were boycotting classes at the high school. The boycott began in the spring of 1994 after the high school principal, Hulond Humphries, threatened to cancel the junior-senior prom if interracial couples planned to attend. Humphries was also accused of calling a mixed-race student’s birth “a mistake.”

The Rev. Johnson also formed what he called a chapter of the Black Panther Militia, saying it was for “self-defense.”

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Emmett Johnson said that the high school represented “an era of racism” and should have been burned down. But he said his son was the victim of a frame-up.

“I know he didn’t do it,” Emmett Johnson said outside the Montgomery, Ala., courthouse after his son’s appearance before a magistrate. “Why would he do it?”

U.S. Atty. Redding Pitt said “the evidence led to Christopher Lynn Johnson,” and added that “his father is in fact involved, as he suggested that he was this morning. Those were not matters that we were prepared to talk about at this time. . . . I think people can probably draw their own conclusions about it.”

The indictment against Johnson had been delayed for two weeks until the end of the school year, so as not to disrupt classes, according to Pitt. The younger Johnson could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted. Federal prosecutors, who claimed jurisdiction in the arson case because the high school received federal funds, planned to ask that Christopher Johnson be held without bail.

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Pitt said the investigation is continuing. He would not say whether more arrests are expected.

The 60-year-old Randolph County High School was gutted by fire on Aug. 6, 1994, after months of racial tension. The prom eventually was held--along with an alternative dance for protesting students--but the school board balked at disciplining Humphries, who had been principal for 25 years.

Humphries said he was concerned about student safety when he spoke against mixed-race dating. He also denied making the “mistake” remark, but the school board settled a lawsuit over the alleged comment by paying the student $25,000.

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After the fire, the school board removed Humphries as principal and put him in charge of rebuilding the school, where classes resumed in trailers. The U.S. Justice Department helped arrange a settlement that restricted Humphries’ contact with students.

Federal arson investigators determined that the fire had been intentionally set. Upon hearing their conclusion, Wedowee Mayor Terry Graham said he was sure the perpetrators were “radical outsiders.” Many in this area of eastern Alabama speculated that it was the work of the Ku Klux Klan.

Following Johnson’s arrest Graham said that at least he got the “radical” part right. “His father brought the Black Panthers down here the week of the fire,” said Graham. “So, the name Johnson did not surprise me when I heard of the arrest.”

Emmett Johnson said the FBI was targeting him and Indianapolis National Black Panther leader Mmoja Ajabu. Ajabu visited Wedowee shortly before the fire and addressed the new chapter of his organization.

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The Indianapolis and Alabama activists have no affiliation with the Black Panther organization of the 1960s, based in Oakland, Calif.


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