Friday, October 1, 2010

Homegrown Terrorists Beaten by Homemade Heroes

On a hot, humid day, I drove my tightly constructed Mercury van with the tinted windows sealed against the heat, the air conditioner set to 65°, and the seat cooling coils activated. Technology trumps Nature is my motto.

Now and then, I saw a marker denoting the stretch of highway as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Little money has been spent on the signs; they are small and could be easily missed against the dry grass and heat radiating from dust and pavement. Shouldn’t we do more to honor such a significant roadway and the events which took place there?

In March 1965, from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to the Capitol grounds in Montgomery, hundreds of people, changed our world for the better. Here, 45 years ago, Voting Rights were fought for, marched for, and won.

In early March, 1965, marchers set out to draw attention to themselves and thereby, their plight. They intended to march on Montgomery to secure equal access to the Constitutional right to vote, but they were stopped by civil authorities who used tear gas, clubs and whips against unarmed citizens. National television replayed the events of “Bloody Sunday” on the nightly news. In doing so, TV convinced the unconvinced that injustice was alive and thriving in some parts of the nation, pricking their consciences to act in behalf of the disenfranchised.

Perhaps TV affected Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.; perhaps it had no effect whatsoever for he was a judge who was unaffected by the color of a man’s skin. In one of his first cases as a prosecutor, he won against two white men who had paid the fines for two black men convicted for minor infractions. The white men then “owned” the black men, holding them as indentured workers until the fines were repaid, but one of them died after being horsewhipped. The white men went to jail; the surviving black man went free.

When Judge Johnson was appointed to the federal court, he heard the facts of the Montgomery bus boycott and ruled against the bus company. He was on the bench when Alabama schools were desegregated. He removed barriers for black men and women to serve on juries, and in March 1965, he declared that “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . . . , and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.” With that ruling, he parted the angry sea holding the marchers in Selma, allowing them to cross into Montgomery.

For his conviction and his careful judgments, Judge Johnson awoke to crosses burning in his yard. His mother’s home was bombed. Yet he was undeterred just as the fictional Atticus was undeterred by terrorism and fear and ignorance. Judge Johnson led the way to a better nation, still imperfect, still plagued with fear and ignorance, but evolving toward the good day by day.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the marchers must have wondered when and if another blow or shot might be taken, but they marched on in the belief that right and good can co-exist. They endured whatever Nature offered and slept in fields. They marched 54 miles from March 21 through March 25. For their conviction and courage, about five months later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the historic Voting Rights Act, insuring equal access to the polls.

Governor George Wallace, who has since recanted, said that Judge Johnson was a man in need of a “barbed wire enema.” Wallace called him an “integrating, scalawagging, carpetbagging liar.” Wallace was equally venomous about LBJ, school desegration, and state sovereignty, issues that still rankle today. Instead of tear gas, clubs, and whips, the weapons of choice are gerrymandering and voter ID cards. The fight is still about power and who is going to wield it.

When Judge Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Clinton said, “In the face of unremitting social and political pressure to uphold the traditions of oppression and neglect in his native South, never once did he yield.” This is high praise, reserved for the heroes in every community and in every walk of life. May they never fail to come forward when there is a need, and may there be no need one day.

Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr: A biography

Equal justice under law: the jurisprudential legacy of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.: An article from: Yale Law Journal