Johnson, Frank Minis, Jr.

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Johnson, Frank Minis, Jr.

As a federal judge in Alabama during the tumultuous Civil Rights era, Frank Minis Johnson Jr. earned an outstanding reputation. Serving on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama (1955–79) and the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits (1979–91), Johnson was a strong, if sometimes cautious, defender of constitutional liberties for all U.S. citizens, regardless of race or social status.

Johnson was one of only a few judges to apply vigorously the U.S. Supreme Court's School Desegregation decision in brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954). He made history in 1956 when he and another judge overturned a Montgomery, Alabama, ordinance requiring Segregation on city buses (Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 [M.D. Ala.]). That decision gave the nascent Civil Rights Movement an encouraging victory and helped catapult martin luther king jr., who had led a boycott of Montgomery buses, to the forefront as a civil rights leader. During the 1970s, Johnson issued court orders requiring sweeping changes in Alabama's mental health institutions and prisons. Although his judicial decisions brought death threats to himself and his family from whites who opposed Integration, Johnson remained faithful to his convictions regarding individual rights.

Johnson was born October 30, 1918, in Delmar, a town in northern Alabama's Winston County. The county, in which Johnson spent his youth, was a Republican stronghold in an overwhelmingly Democratic state; in fact, it had attempted to remain neutral during the Civil War. Johnson's father, Frank Minis Johnson Sr. served as one of the few Republicans in the Alabama state legislature. Johnson studied law at the University of Alabama and graduated in the top of his class in 1943 with a bachelor of laws degree. He gained admission to the Alabama bar the following year.

Johnson distinguished himself during World War II while serving as an officer in the U.S. Army. Wounded in the Normandy Invasion, he received numerous decorations, including the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Bronze Star. He left the military in 1946 and returned to Alabama. Settling in Jasper, he cofounded a law firm and quickly earned a reputation as an outstanding defense lawyer.

In 1952, Johnson worked as a state manager for the presidential campaign of Republican dwight d. eisenhower. After Eisenhower became president the following year, he rewarded Johnson with the post of U.S. attorney for Alabama's Northern District. In 1955, Eisenhower named Johnson to the U.S. District Court for Alabama's Middle District. At age 37, Johnson was the country's youngest federal judge. He became the court's chief judge in 1966.

In 1956, shortly after taking his seat on the bench, Johnson became involved in a formative event of the civil rights movement. A year earlier an African–American woman named rosa parks had been arrested for violating a Montgomery ordinance requiring racial segregation on the city's buses. In response the African–American community organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus system and nominated King as its leader. In addition, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the city ordinance in court and eventually appealed the case to the federal district court (Browder). Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's reasoning in Brown, Johnson and Judge Richard T. Rives, members of a three-judge panel, ruled that the Montgomery ordinance violated the due process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The ruling was the first of many by Johnson, either alone or as part of a three-judge panel, that eliminated racial segregation in public accommodations such as parks, libraries, bus stations, and airports during the 1950s and 1960s. In many instances, Johnson's decisions were the first of their kind, earning him a national reputation as a staunch defender of civil rights.

Johnson's rulings in support of integration often put him at odds with george wallace, a former law school classmate who served four terms as Alabama's governor (1963–67, 1971–75, 1975–79, and 1983–87). Wallace and the state of Alabama actively opposed the desegregation decrees issued by the federal courts. In response Johnson pioneered the use of injunctions (court orders) to force the desegregation of public schools and to monitor compliance with court orders. Wallace and Johnson also clashed in 1965 over King's Selma-to-Montgomery march for civil rights. After Wallace stopped the march, Johnson issued a court order allowing it to proceed. The march was later credited with sparking passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1971). Because of the sweeping effect of his judicial decisions on Alabama society, Johnson was sometimes called the "real" governor of Alabama.

Soon after the Selma march, Johnson tried a celebrated case involving the murder of viola liuzzo, a white civil rights worker who had been shot to death while riding in her car with an African American. After an all-white jury acquitted three Ku Klux Klan members of the murder in state court, a federal case against the men was brought in Johnson's court. Johnson skillfully maneuvered to avoid a deadlocked jury, and the trial resulted in the conviction of the Klan members for violation of the woman's civil rights.

Johnson's rulings on voting rights cleared the way for African Americans to vote on an equal basis with whites. In several decisions during the 1960s, Johnson developed the "freeze" doctrine, by which African Americans were allowed to vote as long as their qualifications matched those of the least qualified white. The doctrine was later incorporated into the Voting Rights Act. In addition, Johnson outlawed the poll tax and issued the first court order requiring equitable Apportionment of legislative seats. Johnson also struck down a state law barring blacks and women from juries, required that court-appointed lawyers be paid, ordered significant changes in Alabama's property tax system, and desegregated the state trooper force.

"The Selma-to-Montgomery march … demonstrated something about democracy: that it can never be taken for granted; [it] also showed that there is a way in this system to gain human rights."
—Frank M. Johnson

Johnson's pro–civil rights decisions made him many enemies. Opponents burned crosses on the lawn of his Montgomery home, fire-bombed his mother's house, and sent hate mail by the bagful. Many leading Montgomery residents ostracized Johnson and his family.After the civil rights era came to an end in the late 1960s, Johnson continued to issue decisions that had a broad and reforming effect on Alabama society. Just as he had done with school desegregation, Johnson used the judicial Injunction as an instrument of social reform. He issued injunctions to remedy inhumane conditions in mental hospitals (Wyatt v. Stickney, 334 F. Supp. 1341 [M.D. Ala. 1971]) and prisons (Newman v. Alabama, 349 F. Supp. 278 [M.D. Ala. 1972]; Pugh v. Locke, 406 F. Supp. 318 [M.D. Ala. 1976]). In both of these instances, Johnson established a Human Rights committee to implement and monitor his orders.

In 1977, President jimmy carter named Johnson director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but a heart condition prevented Johnson from taking the job. Surgery improved Johnson's health, and he remained on the federal bench. In 1979, Carter appointed Johnson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Judicial Circuit; in 1981, redistricting made him part of the Eleventh Circuit. In one notable case from his tenure on the Eleventh Circuit court, Hardwick v. Bowers, 760 F.2d 1202 (11th Cir. 1985), Johnson wrote an opinion declaring that a Georgia Sodomy statute (Georgia Code. Ann. § 16-6-2 [1984]) violated constitutional rights. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision (Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186, 106 S. Ct. 2841, 92 L. Ed. 2d 140 [1986]).

Johnson retired to senior status on the Eleventh Circuit in 1991. He received many honors and awards, including honorary doctorates of law from Notre Dame, Princeton, Alabama, Boston, Yale, Mercer, and the Tuskegee Institute. He also received the Thurgood Marshall Award. In 1992, the government renamed the federal courthouse in Montgomery the Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. And, in 1995, President bill clinton awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. In presenting the award, Clinton noted Johnson's "landmark decisions in the areas of desegregation, voting rights, and civil liberties."

In 1984, Johnson was awarded the Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, which is administered by the American Judicature Society. This award is named for Edward J. Devitt, a former chief U.S. district judge for Minnesota. It acknowledges the dedication and contributions to justice made by all federal judges, by recognizing the specific achievements of one judge who has contributed significantly to the profession. Johnson died on July 23, 1999, in Montgomery.

Cross-references

Gay and Lesbian Rights; Separate But Equal.

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For any student of the law, indeed for any person who believes in the values for which the Constitution of the United States stands, the name Frank Minis Johnson, Jr.