Those of us who are Baby Boomers remember the tumultuous times of the 1960’s. We lived through the Civil Rights revolution. Those of us who grew up here in the Heart of Dixie witnessed the transpiring of racial integration first hand. Most of the crusades and struggles occurred here in Alabama, especially Montgomery.
A good many of the landmark Civil Rights court decisions were handed down in the Federal Court in Montgomery. The author and renderer of these epic rulings was one, Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Johnson served as Federal Judge in the Middle District of Alabama for 24 years from 1955 through 1979.
Johnson’s judicial decisions brought death threats to him and his family from whites opposed to integration. He was vilified by most white Alabamians at that time and became George Wallace’s favorite whipping boy. Wallace referred to him as a “lying, scalawagging, carpetbagging integrationist.”
Frank Johnson, Jr. was born in Winston County in October, 1918. Winston County attempted to stay neutral during the Civil War. It was a Republican stronghold in an overwhelmingly Democratic Alabama.
In contrast to the Black Belt planters in South Alabama, the people who settled North Alabama were small farmers. The land they settled on was hilly and not as conducive to growing cotton. Rather than large plantations and slaves, the fiercely independent hill country farmers had 40 acres and a mule.
Therefore, when the winds of division between North and South began to blow in the 1850’s, an obvious political difference between North and South Alabamians arose. In 1860 there were only 14 slave owners in Winston County. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, the crucial decision of secession arose. Contrary to what most present-day Alabamians think, it was not an easy unified decision that we should leave the Union.
A secession convention was held in January, 1861, in Montgomery. The vote was extremely close. The delegates split 54-46 for secession. The Black Belters from South Alabama were for creating a confederacy of southern states to protect their slave ownership and way of life. The hill farmers from North Alabama preferred to not secede. These North Alabamians voted against secession from the Union at that time.
Shortly after the secession convention, citizens of Winston County met at a local establishment, Looney’s Tavern. These yeoman farmers of the hills were obviously reluctant to leave the Union for the cause of the planter and his slaves.
Legend has it that on July 4, 1861, the good people of Winston County decided to secede from Alabama and remain in the Union. That is why they are known in Alabama political history and folklore as, “The Free State of Winston.”
That same sort of independent streak was a hallmark of the Johnson family who were some of the earliest settlers of Winston County. Judge Johnson’s father served as one of the few Republicans in the Alabama Legislature in the first half of the 20th century.
Frank Johnson, Jr studied law at the University of Alabama and graduated at the top of his law school class in 1943. He then distinguished himself as a U.S. Army officer in World War II. He was wounded at Normandy and received the Purple Heart. After the war, he settled in Winston County and began practicing law in Jasper.
Although the Democratic Party dominated southern politics, Johnson was a lifelong, Winston County Republican. Therefore, he led the 1952 Dwight Eisenhower campaign for President in the state. After Eisenhower became president, he rewarded Johnson with a federal judgeship.
In 1955-1956, shortly after taking his seat on the bench, Johnson became involved in a formative event of the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks was arrested for violating a Montgomery ordinance requiring racial segregation on the city buses. In response, the African American community organized a boycott of the bus system and nominated Reverend Martin Luther King as its leader. Johnson ruled that the Montgomery ordinance violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
The ruling was the first of many by Johnson which eliminated racial segregation in public accommodations such as parks, libraries, bus stations, and airports during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Johnson’s decisions were legendary and groundbreaking. He became the central defender of Civil Rights in America from his Federal Bench in Montgomery. The Federal Courthouse in Montgomery is now named in his honor. Judge Johnson died in 1999.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached