Friday, July 23, 2004


Five years ago today, a great American died. The nation was still in convulsions over the death of another great American. This is an essay that I wrote for the Gilmer Mirror at the time.

Maybe it's because we were in Paris when it happened. It didn't seem real, coming at me in a language I half understand. "La mort" had "frappee" JFK "encore," screamed a special edition I at first mistook for a tabloid dredging up a sordid new angle on an old story.

It would still seem a little unreal, this latest Kennedy death, were it not for the American media's determination to hammer it home.

The nonstop coverage of every move the Kennedy family was making, or had ever made, upstaged another notable death. Frank M. Johnson Jr., retired Alabama federal judge, died on July 23, one day after the ashes of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law were committed to the very waters where his Piper Saragota had gone down.

If you don't remember Judge Johnson by name, it may be thanks to George Wallace's success in demonizing him as an "integratin', carpetbaggin', scalawaggin', baldfaced liar." Gov. Wallace's nemesis, he decided every major Alabama civil rights case for 20 years, from Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on the bus through Martin Luther King Jr.'s march to Selma to the integration of the Alabama state police force.

Judge Johnson was no carpetbagger. Like a number of the federal judges who desegregated the South, he was an Eisenhower Republican with local roots. He hailed from Winston County--the "Free State of Winston," it was called, for its refusal to join with the rest of Alabama as a Confederate state (it actually claimed a position of neutrality).

A point that's easy to forget when talking about the law is the difference between the work of trial judges and that of appellate judges. It's one thing for the Supreme Court to make its abstract pronouncements, far removed from the facts. It's quite another to be the judge who has to look angry litigants in the eye and then, when the day is done and the decision made, has to live in community with them.

Frank Johnson was well aware of the difficulties of his role. He knew that an opinion that is neither understood nor supported by the people it most affects is not worth much: that is to say, he knew the difference between law and politics. Thus he took care not just with what he decided but also with how he said it.

The Rosa Parks case, for example, involved the tearful testimony of a progression of poor black women, many of them young, all telling how hurt they had been by the social system that kept them at the back of the bus.

The written opinion Johnson helped to craft in this case could have incorporated their testimony as a means of emotional appeal. But this was 1956. Sensing that the sympathies of his majority white audience were not likely to be aroused by these stories regardless of how moving, he chose instead to concentrate on the rule of law and the constitutional requirements of equal treatment.

No matter how persuasively written, his decisions were tough to swallow in the Middle District of Alabama. Yet he always believed he was doing only what the Constitution demanded. And that could cut both ways, sometimes at once. When, in 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality organized the Freedom Rides to test a Supreme Court decision challenging Jim Crow laws segregating interstate bus riders throughout the South, the Ku Klux Klan retorted with violent attacks.

In Judge Johnson's court, the Klan was slapped with an injunction. But so was CORE, for entering into the stream of interstate commerce as "non-bona fide passengers"--in other words, for being outside agitators.

His sense of fairness plus his commitment to the principles of Brown v. Board of Education attracted the attention of the Justice Department under Robert F. Kennedy. It was no accident that so many important civil rights cases were brought in his court.

Judge Johnson's style is legendary. He didn't raise his voice. He didn't wear a robe or bang a gavel. He enforced his authority simply by looking hard across the top of his half-glasses "like he was aiming down a rifle barrel," in the words of one lawyer.

My favorite story involves Attorney General Kennedy. He had come down from Washington to argue one particularly high-profile case. He rose to speak. But the judge wouldn't let him get started. "Are you a member of this court?" he asked. He wanted to know whether Kennedy had filled out the paperwork by which members of the local bar give permission to outside lawyers to argue their cases for them.

Not having done so, Kennedy could only respond that since he was attorney general of the United States, he assumed he needed no permission to appear in any federal court. He could make no such assumption, Judge Johnson informed him, and so the startled and unprepared lawyer sitting next to Kennedy had to make the argument.

You could dismiss this gesture as high-handed. But it is of a piece with Judge Johnson's philosophy of keeping matters within local determination. He never favored busing, to give another example, because of the damage he feared it would do to neighborhoods.

Over time, Judge Johnson remained a hero to the extended Kennedy family. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. went to Alabama in 1977 planning to write a senior honors thesis on George Wallace. Within a month he switched to Frank Johnson. "I was awestruck," he said. "Here was a man who utterly vindicated my family's central notion that a single man can make a difference."

A biography of the judge, Taming the Storm, by Jack Bass (1993), was edited for Doubleday by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at her special request.

It's easy to compare the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Frank M. Johnson Jr. Like the simultaneous deaths of Lady Diana and Mother Teresa, the juxtaposition brings into focus troublesome questions about the nature of fame and the way we value public lives.

But the better comparison may be with Johnson's son. Frank and Ruth Johnson had only one child, an adopted boy named Johnny. Johnny suffered with his parents through a cross burning, numerous bomb threats and many more subtle forms of ostracism. (The home of the judge's mother, a widow then still known as Mrs. Frank M. Johnson Sr., was bombed by someone who paid too little attention to detail. It narrowly missed killing her.)

Johnny developed mental instabilities and spent years in and out of institutions. No one can say he would not have suffered mental illness in any event, but those who knew him were certain that being the son of the most hated judge in Alabama took its toll. In 1975, at age 28, he went into his father's study and shot himself in the mouth.

Like John Kennedy, Johnny Johnson had a romance with flying. He took the lessons and learned the right moves. His application for a pilot's license was turned down, though, because of his history of mental hospitalization. When Johnny died, a family friend, a pilot who had flown with him, took the ashes up and scattered them over the Alabama River.

"Being born to fame is not like earning it," writes John Updike in his tribute to John Kennedy. "You have to create your own worth in other coin, you have to escape history's shadow and get, as they say, a life." John Kennedy, in Updike's view, was on his way to reaching escape velocity. The story of Johnny Johnson suggests that the chances are greater if the fame you are born to is the kind that already soars above the ground, where shadows are easier to dodge.

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