Remembering Judge Johnson

By on 19 January, 2015 in Government, Holidays, Kate and Stephen, Legal Issues with 2 Comments

IMG_1236 copyIn the Montgomery airport, there’s a new advertisement for the movie Selma, which was shot partly right here in town. The movie’s advertising slogan reads “One dream can change the world.” That’s catchy, and clearly calls back to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Unfortunately, it reflects a common and largely misleading view of the civil rights movement which holds that it was the result of a few heroic figures rather than the collective struggle of hundreds of thousands. We haven’t seen Selma yet, though we plan to, and don’t mean this as a reflection on the movie. But on this day that celebrates the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s useful to remember that there was in fact more than just an animating dream — there was actually a movement (based on sacrifice and hard work) in the civil rights movement.

Beginning with the revolutionary bus boycotts (which E.D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson don’t get nearly enough credit for), through the Freedom Rides and into the Selma march, the movement surged from and coursed through Montgomery. In particular, on of the crucial battlegrounds for the struggle was the federal courtroom of Judge Frank Johnson. On Friday, I had the opportunity to attend a symposium on his life and works. The panelists were Johnson biographer Jack Bass, current federal judge Myron Thompson and lawyer Peter Canfield. The latter two were among the many of the judge’s former clerks in the packed courtroom.

This was my first time in the stately federal courthouse, and I was thrilled to see how beautiful it is inside. On the outside, it is one of our city’s most distinctive buildings, but can come across as quite imposing and even cold. On the inside, however, it’s beautifully preserved, with gorgeous floors and brass elevators – much warmer than the columns outside would leave you to believe. The session itself was a celebration of the 60th anniversary of Thompson’s ruling that allowed the Selma march to proceed, and was held in what was once Judge Johnson’s courtroom but is now Judge Thompson’s. Inside, the ceilings are intricately colored and the arch behind the judicial bench is a lovely blue with golden stars.

I won’t try to summarize the entire two-hour discussion here, but it was amazing to note just how many historic cases passed before Judge Johnson. By all accounts, he was an extremely decent person with a keen eye for the law. He was instrumental in deciding cases integrating Montgomery’s transit system, allowing the Freedom Rides, and permitting the Selma march (at the same time that he reportedly strong-armed President Johnson into protecting the marchers). The Winston County native doesn’t seem to have been much of a firebrand ideologue on the matter of civil rights – the one story told about his single encounter with King in the courthouse elevator was entirely empty. But it’s clear that in the time that he sat on the bench, he could tell which way the moral arc of the universe was bending and crafted decisions that brought the law into alignment.

As residents of Montgomery, we have a unique duty to celebrate the stories of the revolutionaries that have called our city home. Within a single generation, a tidal wave of change helped force our nation to make good on its lofty promises. That’s what makes it a shame, even as we celebrate holiday devoted to our city’s most famous resident, to reduce the incredible story to the narrative of a single man.

The civil rights movement was about so much more than Martin Luther King. Rosa Parks might have been tired, but she was also part of a well-trained social movement. And as last week’s celebration reminds us, Judge Frank Johnson’s story reminds us of the many people who were instrumental to achieve the movement’s (still evolving) successes.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. jim williams says:

    Seriously, the courage that was shown by Judge Johnson had nothing to do with a moral arc. You must not be from around here.

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