Obituary: Frank M. Johnson Jnr

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FEDERAL JUDGES do not often find their picture on the cover of Time, that ultimate accolade of transient celebrity. But, in 1967, Frank M. Johnson Jnr did so. He was, the magazine proclaimed, "one of the most important men in America". Normally, such plaudits are little more than publisher's puff. In his case however the description happened to be true. Few men, white or black, played a greater role in the civil rights movement, and in changing the face of the American South.

Johnson joined the bench of the US District Court in Alabama in November 1955, 18 months after the Brown vs Board of Education ruling of the Supreme Court, declaring segregation of schools to be illegal. Just three weeks after his appointment by President Dwight Eisenhower, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man. Her gesture would both detonate a social revolution, and provide Johnson with his first major case.

Together with another member of a three-judge panel he ruled that the segregated bus system in Alabama's state capital violated the "equal protection" provision of the US Constitution. The judgment opened the way to the subsequent desegregation of all public facilities across the South, and launched Johnson on a career that would make him a judicial legend.

From the outset, Frank Johnson was an outsider. Haleyville, the small town in remote and hilly north-west Alabama where he was born in 1918, had been a unionist pocket which before the Civil War had rejected slavery, and tried to secede from Alabama when it joined the Confederacy. He was a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, and an idiosyncratic judge who ran his court with an icy drawl, and a strictness that terrified attorneys who dared argue with him. "He looked at you," one attested later, "like he was aiming down a gun barrel."

His record on the bench made him, among whites at least, in the words of the Ku Klux Klan, "the most hated man in Alabama". For the best part of two decades, from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, Johnson was under 24-hour protection by federal marshals - and with good reason. Not only was he socially ostracised; there were countless death threats and twice crosses were burnt on his lawn. On another occasion his mother's house was firebombed by white supremacists, in the mistaken assumption he lived there himself. But Johnson never flinched - not even in his confrontations with his arch- foe George Wallace, the state's formidable governor, two-time presidential candidate and champion of the old unsegregated South.

The two had been law-school contemporaries at the University of Alabama before Johnson joined the army in 1943, but their paths after the Second World War ran in diametrically opposite directions. After one case in 1959, in which Johnson had threatened Wallace, then a state judge, with imprisonment unless he handed over certain voting records, Wallace called him "an integratin', carpetbaggin', scallawaggin', bald-faced liar". Much later, when Johnson ruled that state prisoners were entitled to mininum human treatment, the by-now Governor Wallace claimed he was seeking to turn prisons into hotels. To which Johnson memorably replied, "The elimination of conditions that permit maggots in a patient's wounds for over a month before his death does not constitute the creation of a hotel atmosphere."

Their most momentous clash came in 1965, when Johnson overturned the Governor's ban on a march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. Wallace had argued that more violence would ensue, but the judge - after securing promises from President Lyndon Johnson that adequate protection would be provided - insisted that the right to march was "commensurate with the wrongs that are being protested . . . and in this case the wrongs are enormous". The Selma march went ahead, and a few months later the President introduced the Voting Rights Act, a watershed in the entire campaign for civil rights.

There were legion other achievements, not all of them involving race. Some of his judgments, like his order that Alabama start hiring black policemen, were precursors of the modern doctrine of "affirmative action". But other rulings improved prison conditions and dramatically extended the rights of mental patients. In doing so, he set in motion a redrawing of the relationship between the states and the federal government - a process in progress to this day.

Southern conservatives in Congress would block any prospect of Johnson's joining the Supreme Court, but, in 1977, Jimmy Carter earned wide praise when he nominated Johnson to become Director of the FBI. Though ill-health prevented that appointment, two months later the President named him to the Fifth (now Eleventh) Circuit Court of Appeal covering much of the South, where he spent the rest of his judicial career until he retired in 1992. Three years later, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award.

In the closing part of his life, as racial attitudes changed, old Alabama made its peace with Johnson. Before his own death in 1998, even George Wallace attempted a reconciliation - only to be frostily rebuffed. Most telling of all, in Montgomery where for so long Johnson had been a detested outcast, the federal courthouse was renamed in his honour.

Rupert Cornwell

Frank Minis Johnson, judge: born Haleyville, Alabama 30 October 1918; married 1938 Ruth Jenkins (one son deceased); died Montgomery, Alabama 23 July 1999.