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Frank Johnson


Frank Johnson When Frank Johnson, a law-school friend of George Wallace, mused that "one day I might be a federal judge," Wallace is said to have responded, "Well, that’ll be the day. I’ll be governor by then." Little could the two men have known that their dreams would come true, or that their politics and ideologies would pit them against one another throughout their careers.

The youthful friendship of Johnson and Wallace was surprising, given that the two seemed to have little in common. Johnson was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican from northern Alabama. His great-grandfather had served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Although Wallace and other student Democrats enjoyed ribbing Johnson about his politics, Wallace was a frequent guest at the home of Johnson and his wife, Ruth, who was also a university student.

During World War II, Johnson served in Europe as commander of a weapons platoon and was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for bravery. He returned to Alabama after the war to open a law practice. Johnson was active in the Republican party and organized "Alabama Veterans for Eisenhower" during the 1952 presidential campaign. President Eisenhower appointed Johnson, then thirty-five, as federal district attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. In 1955, Johnson was nominated for a federal judgeship.

Johnson’s first decision set the tone for the rest of his judicial career. As part of a federal panel, Johnson declared that "Brown v. Board of Education" applied not only to schools, but to all areas of public life. He granted the injunction against segregated seating on city buses which had been requested by the Montgomery bus boycotters. He was swiftly denounced as a "traitor" by the Alabama White Citizens’ Council.

The federal appointment brought Johnson back in contact with George Wallace, then a circuit judge in Johnson’s new jurisdiction, the Middle District of Alabama. In 1959 a federal commission began investigating discrimination against black voters in Alabama. Johnson ordered all voting records to be turned over to federal officials. George Wallace angrily announced that he would personally keep these records from the prying eyes of national officials and Judge Johnson quickly responded by threatening to put Wallace in jail for contempt of court. Hoping to avoid a long jail sentence, Wallace met with Johnson, but Johnson made it clear that if Wallace did not turn over the records in his keeping, he would be sent to jail for as long as possible. It was the last time the two men would ever speak privately. In the end, Wallace distributed the records to members of a grand jury and then quietly suggested that they give the records to federal investigators. At the same time Wallace announced that he had defied the court order.

After the integration of the University of Alabama in 1963, the federal government turned its attention to integrating the state’s public schools. Johnson soon ordered the school board in Macon County to begin desegregation. Governor Wallace sent state troopers to prevent the affected schools from opening. At Robert Kennedy’s request, Judge Johnson issued a restraining order to stop Wallace from using state troops to interfere.

For his rulings, Johnson was an outcast among white Alabamians. He and his family endured harassing and threatening letters and phone calls. After Johnson’s 1965 decision in favor of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, federal marshals were assigned to protect the judge, his family, and even his parents. Fearful for the safety of their son, Johnny, the Johnsons sent him to a private school, which was segregated. Their action caused George Wallace to accuse the Johnsons of being hypocrites who wanted other people to send their children to integrated public schools while they did otherwise.

In the early 1970s Johnson made important rulings regarding the rights of two other neglected groups in Alabama -- mental patients and the incarcerated. He called for the state to reform Alabama’s mental hospitals, or "human warehouses" as the judge called them, and affirmed the right of patients to adequate care and treatment. In 1975 Johnson issued a court order requiring Alabama to improve the "barbaric" conditions in its state prisons.

Although a repentant George Wallace contacted Ruth Johnson in 1974 to apologize "for all the heartache," she found it difficult to forgive him. Frank Johnson refused to meet with Wallace and sent the former governor a message saying that "if he wanted to get forgiveness, he’d have to get it from the Lord." Johnson retired from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in 1992. He died in Montgomery in 1999 at the age of 80.
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