As a psychiatrist, I recently felt the need to update my familiarity with several of the major legal decisions affecting mental health treatment laws of decades ago that opened the gates of reform. I reviewed the first such decision of 1956, Wyatt vs. Stickney in Alabama. In reading some historical blurbs on this decision, I noticed the names of the three-judge federal panel and was struck that one judge’s name, Frank M. Johnson was noted in many of the famous post Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1855 that started the USA’ s move into the years of desegregation. I then started researching this judge as I realized I knew nothing about him. And lo and behold I realized I needed to read more about him.
So I zipped off to Amazon and searched to see if there were any books or biographies about this man. And there were several so I ordered at cut-rate used book prices three of the ones that looked the best. And as they arrived in the mail over a period of weeks, I started to read about. One or two of them were quite good and informative as well as fascinating. I thought I would profile one of them here.
This book was a gem in that it delved into appropriate civil rights history that surprised me. Much of the background to the many cases this courageous judge handled, was entirely new to me. I was brought up short reading in every case’s deeply historical treatment as much history I never knew came alive. For instance, I learned that sixteen-year-old black teen preceded by a few months Rosa Parks in starting the original bus seating revolution by sitting in a white’s only section on a Montgomery AL bus. The book was full of these new historical events that I had never known. And I am a typical liberal who has tried to read through the years many books on this era. I have done this not only because of my political beliefs but also because I lived through desegregation in my early teens for a year when our family happened to live in a southern state that desegregated the high school I attended for a year. It was a tense time and thankfully our area did not have riots, violence, National Guard troops that made tv news the eye into history as the cable news networks have done since the founding of CNN two and a half decades ago. But I and my family knew we were in and through really important history.
Another feature made this book special. The author Jack Bass wrote extensively and authoritatively about the Judge’s family, his growing up years and very formative experiences that prepared him to be an impartial and incredibly fair and nonpartisan, i.e., not a typical Southern political segregationist racist. He even detailed this man’s college and law school relationship with the late George C. Wallace, the famous segregationist Governor of Alabama who publicly fought desegregation after the decision Brown vs. Board of Education. This accessory story, though brief, was nonetheless, fascinating beyond words.
Yet another aspect to this book was that the author interviewed many many persons who knew the Judge, covered his career, opposed and fought him, etc. In fact, the author interviewed the Judge himself for dozens of hours, covering his life, and decisions. The author dutifully recorded these interviewed manually and buttressed many issues and events with pertinent quotes from Judge Johnson throughout the book. These quotes were like a magical eye into the history and made it all come alive as few historical books I have read have done.
The level of such detail documented the supreme bravery this Judge exhibited throughout his legal career. The Judge and his family endured years of harassment, death threats, cross burnings, and disavowal by some of his friends. This book could have also been titled “Profiles in Courage.” This man was appropriately recognized and honored for his legal achievements and bravery the last years of his life as he so richly deserved. Bout outside certain circles, he was not as well known as he should have been. His story has also fallen into relative obscurity in the decades since his demise. Likely only historians, well versed legal scholars, attorneys, persons well acquainted with black and civil rights and American black history, and law students, know Judge Johnson’s story and important legacy.
So, students of history, take heed and note. Add items about Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., to your self-education menu. His is a story worth learning about and knowing and passing to your children.