Judicial Heroes & Legends: November 2020 – Frank M. Johnson Jr.

Frank M. Johnson Jr. (1918-1999)

Frank M. Johnson was a federal district judge and circuit court of appeals judge who made landmark decisions that advanced civil rights in the South and beyond.

Appointed to the bench in Alabama a year and a half after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, he was soon presented with cases that required him to interpret the Constitution in light of the court striking down the principle of “separate but equal.”

He was the judge in the Rosa Parks case that challenged bus segregation. Nearly a decade later he ruled that activists could undertake the historic Selma-to-Montgomery March led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He ordered the Ku Klux Klan and Montgomery police to stop the beating and harassment of Freedom Riders attempting to integrate interstate bus travel.

He often received death threats and was ostracized for his role in advancing civil rights. A burning cross was placed on his lawn following the Rosa Parks decision, and his mother’s house was bombed in 1967, although she was not hurt. He was protected by federal marshals for nearly two decades. He served more than 40 years on the federal bench

His decisions on voting rights, equal opportunity employment, affirmative action, humane conditions for prison inmates, and the rights of mental patients to adequate care affected the nation and the world.

He said he merely did his job.

In 1992 the federal building and courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served was renamed in his honor.

View some clips of his interview with Bill Moyers, here.

Each month the College celebrates an exemplary or inspiring jurist from history who did what all judges are supposed to do: administer justice fairly according to the law and without regard to outside influences or personal considerations.   

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