Frank M. Johnson

Frank M. Johnson was an Alabama federal judge who in the mid-20th century oversaw major rulings favoring integration, voting equity and human rights.


Born on October 30, 1918, in Haleyville, Alabama, Frank M. Johnson was an attorney before becoming a state federal judge. He made major rulings during his tenure declaring racial segregation unconstitutional and which favored African-American voting equity, later becoming known for his prison and hospital reforms. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he died on July 23, 1999.


Frank Minis Johnson Jr. was born in the town of Haleyville, Alabama, on October 30, 1918, the first of several siblings. Among a farming community, his father was also a teacher and probate judge, and the young Johnson pursued a career in law as well after attending a Mississippi military academy, ultimately graduating from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1943.

In 1938, Johnson had wed fellow student Ruth Jenkins, who also hailed from his home county of Winston; the couple later adopted a child, James Curtis.

Becomes Federal Judge

Frank M. Johnson served in World War II, receiving commendations, before returning to his home state and setting up shop in Jasper as an attorney at the firm Curtis & Maddox. After corralling support for Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential election, he was appointed U.S. attorney for Northern Alabama in 1953. Then, in 1955, Johnson was named by Eisenhower to take over a federal judge position in the state's middle district. Hence Johnson and his family relocated to Montgomery.

Key Force in Desegregation

Shortly thereafter, Johnson sided with the majority opinion in the case that made it illegal to segregate city busses after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to white passengers. Looking at 1954's Brown v. Board of Education case as a precedent, Johnson found it unconstitutional to segregate facilities based on race.

Johnson's steadfast belief in adhering to law found the judge becoming an instrumental force in key Civil Rights Movement rulings. He ruled for desegregating a host of public spaces in Alabama, as seen with the landmark school-based decision Lee v. Macon County Board of Education (1963), and supported African-American voting rights, with his decisions publicly opposed by former university schoolmate, Alabama Governor George Wallace.

In 1965, Johnson declared that the march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery for voting equity was "basic to our constitutional principles," and received support from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who authorized the state national guard to serve as protection. In another landmark move, Johnson determinedly pushed for deadlocked jurors to come to a verdict in the civil rights case of murdered activist Viola Gregg Liuzzo; her killers thus received jail sentences.

Prison and Hospital Reforms

Johnson held fast to his rulings, though he faced ostracism from much of his area's white community and downright violence, with his mother's home firebombed and crosses burned on the grounds of his home. He and his family were thus placed under protection of federal marshals.

During the 1970s, Johnson continued his reforms by improving the horrific conditions observed in Alabama prisons and mental health institutions. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated Johnson to head the FBI, but the judge had to withdraw due to heart surgery. He was later appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Awards and Legacy

Johnson received a host of honors during his lifetime, including the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association in 1993 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1995.

Johnson died on July 23, 1999, in Montgomery. With the city's federal courthouse named in his honor, books on his life include Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr.: A Biography (1978), by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Jack Bass's Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Frank M. Johnson Jr. and the South's Fight Over Civil Rights (1993).

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