Frank M. Johnson Jr.; U.S. Judge Issued Key Civil Rights Rulings

<i> From Times Staff and Wire Reports</i>

Frank M. Johnson Jr., a federal judge whose precedent-setting rulings brought down racial barriers across the South, died Friday of pneumonia. He was 80.

Johnson, who became a hero of the civil rights movement and a target of then-Gov. George C. Wallace, spent nearly 25 years on the U.S. District Court bench in Alabama after his appointment by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in November, 1955.

His first big case came three months later in a class-action lawsuit involving Rosa Parks, the black seamstress who had been arrested for failing to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision, Johnson and another member of the three-judge panel ruled that the local bus segregation ordinance violated the “due process and equal protection” clauses of the 14th Amendment.


It was the first time the high court’s decision had been applied in a non-school case, and it cleared the way for the eventual desegregation of all public facilities in the South.

For Johnson, it was the first of many historic decisions. In 1961, he noted that Macon County officials had ignored state literacy requirements in registering whites to vote but had enforced them with blacks. He ruled that the least restrictive qualifications for whites would be the standard for blacks as well. That ruling was incorporated into the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Two years later, Johnson signed the original order to integrate every school in Alabama, including the University of Alabama, which precipitated Wallace’s famous the stand in the schoolhouse door.

In one of the most dramatic orders of his career, Johnson threw out Wallace’s ban on a voting rights march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery. The governor had cited public safety concerns. Johnson wrote:

“It seems basic to our constitutional principles that the extent of the right to assemble, demonstrate and march peaceably along the highways and streets in an orderly manner should be commensurate with the enormity of the wrongs that are being protested and petitioned against,” Johnson said, “In this case, the wrongs are enormous. The extent of the right to demonstrate against these wrongs should be determined accordingly.”

Before issuing the order, the judge had received assurances from President Lyndon B. Johnson that it would be enforced.

Many observers noted later that Judge Johnson’s decision to allow the march was key to the passage of national voting rights legislation.

It also was Johnson who presided over the trial of three Ku Klux Klansmen accused of violating the civil rights of slain civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo. Despite overwhelming evidence, an all-white jury had acquitted the three men of killing Liuzzo.

When the jurors in the civil rights case tried to declare themselves deadlocked, Johnson ordered them to continue.

With rarely used legal tactics, he continued to press the jurors until they returned a verdict. Each defendant received a maximum 10-year sentence.

Although he received accolades from progressive groups, Johnson insisted throughout his career that he was simply following the law and was hardly a liberal. In one case, he refused to overturn the Alabama Legislature’s gerrymandering of the predominantly black city of Tuskegee, which precluded all but four black families from voting, by citing a previous Supreme Court decision that said “modification of a municipality is the prerogative of the state alone.” When the high court later altered that ruling, Johnson changed his ruling as well.

During the height of the civil rights movement, he also showed firm resolve despite the violence of the times. A cross was once burned on his lawn. His mother’s house, mistaken for his, was bombed. After a series of death threats, he received round-the-clock protection from federal marshals.

“He stood steady in the fiercest of political storms when he believed he was right,” Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman said Friday. “He helped shape the course of this state and this country through his staunch defense of the rule of law. His loss will be felt by many.”

Frank Minis Johnson Jr. was born in Haleyvilla, Ala., the oldest of seven children. His father was a farmer and high school teacher who also served as a postmaster and a probate judge. During the early 1940s, he was the only Republican member of the state Legislature.

Johnson’s attitudes were forged by the rigors of farm life, his mother’s firm discipline and the independent history of his community, which, during the Civil War, had attempted to secede from Alabama.

He attended military school in Mississippi before graduating near the top of his law class at the University of Alabama. One of his law school classmates was Wallace, who would later fuel his rise to the governor’s office with verbal attacks on Johnson.

During World War II, Johnson rose to the rank of captain in the Army and was wounded in the Normandy invasion. He returned to Alabama after the war and started a law firm, where he earned a reputation as an excellent criminal defense attorney.

In 1952, he worked for the election of Eisenhower, who later appointed him U.S. attorney for Alabama’s northern district. In 1955, he was named to the federal bench.

Johnson was a stern figure in the courtroom, and his authority there was seldom questioned. Until he was ordered to do so by a higher court, he never wore a robe or used a gavel, explaining that a judge who needs such trappings “hasn’t established control.” He spoke slowly with a gravelly drawl and could inspire fear in lawyers when he looked down from the bench, peering over steel-rimmed glasses and issuing firm instructions.

In the early 1970s, Johnson ruled that Alabama’s state mental hospitals were “human warehouses.” He issued far-reaching orders establishing the right of patients to receive adequate care and detailing how Alabama had to improve conditions for them.

Similarly, he found Alabama’s prisons “barbaric” and ordered a sweeping overhaul.

When Wallace accused him of trying to create a hotel atmosphere in the state’s prisons, Johnson responded: “The elimination of conditions that will permit maggots in a patient’s wounds for over a month before his death does not constitute the creation of a hotel atmosphere.”

Later, Johnson became known to many as “the real governor of Alabama” and often was considered for higher federal office. In 1969, he was the choice of John N. Mitchel, Richard Nixon’s attorney general, to replace Abe Fortas on the Supreme Court. But his nomination was blocked by Southern Republicans who were angry with his civil rights stands.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated him to be FBI director, but the day after his nomination, Johnson’s doctor found an aortic aneurysm. Johnson underwent surgery to repair the condition and his doctor predicted a full recovery. But several months later, he had a relapse and asked Carter to withdraw the nomination.

After returning to health, he resumed his seat on the bench and continued to deliver precedent-setting rulings.

In one, he ordered Alabama State University, the state’s oldest and largest traditionally black college, to stop “it’s practice of discrimination against whites” in hiring faculty and staff. It was the first time that a federal court had found that a black institution discriminated against whites.

In 1979, he was named to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which later became the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he finished his judicial career.

“In my opinion, he will go down as the greatest federal judge in the history of our country,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Joel Dubina, who had known Johnson since 1973. “He was a great, great man.”