Every judge gets called "your honor," but few have earned the title more emphatically than Frank Johnson, the veteran federal judge whose rulings enriched the history of human rights during his 24 years on the federal bench in Alabama.
Last week, on "Bill Moyers' Journal," Johnson talked with Moyers about those years and those decisions, and tonight at 8 on Channel 26, the discussion concludes with another absorbing and genuinely encouraging hour. Johnson, once the subject of a biography by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., not only has a remarkable record on racial integration and minority rights cases but was also instrumental in reforming his state's mental health institutions and prisons.
This may earn Johnson enormous respect and envy now, but he endured more than his share of vehement denunciations during years of social and political upheaval in the South and the rest of the country as well. "Well, it was interesting and, in retrospect, it was worth it," he understatedly tells Moyers as they look back.
His most notorious and successful foe was former Alabama governor George Wallace, recalled briefly in film clips pledging "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" and branding Johnson "rash, headstrong and vindictive" for his civil rights rulings. Johnson recalls knowing Wallace when he was "the most liberal student in the law school at the University of Alabama."
He also remembers how -- many years later, of course -- Wallace appeared at his front door with a coat over his head one night and asked Johnson to send him to jail for "just a little while" because Wallace knew that would "help him politically."
Moyers brings up lofty issues like judicial activism, the parameters of federal power, and the relationship among the judiciary and the executive and legislative branches. But the discussion is most compelling when Johnson is remembering the details of cases or defending his decisions. When he issued the ruling that allowed Martin Luther King Jr. to lead his freedom march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Johnson notes, there were in Alabama counties in which 113 percent of eligible whites had registered to vote while at the most 6 percent of eligible blacks had.
More recently, the judge ruled that a predominantly black college, Alabama State University, had discriminated against a white student. "There is no such thing as reverse discrimination," Johnson says. "It's just plain old discrimination, whether it's whites against blacks or blacks against whites."
This very affirmative profile of fairness, presence of mind, and selfless courage was produced in Montgomery by Randy Bean and directed by Sidney Smith.As has been the case with Moyers before, an hour of talking heads is not only engrossing conversation but exceptional television.