Taming the Storm:
The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. and the South’s Fight over Civil Rights
“Taming the Storm describes the triumph of wisdom, tenacity, and personal courage—an inspiring story.”
-President Jimmy Carter
“Frank Johnson’s contributions to the emergence of civil rights in America cannot be overemphasized. In Taming the Storm, Jack Bass does more than just capably portray the life of the splendid man; he also skillfully tells the civil rights story, as seen through the eyes of Judge Johnson. It is a story none of us should ever forget.”
-Chief Justice Warren Burger
“The definitive biography of this legendary judge.”
-New York Times Book Review
“A fine salute to a brave man with an enormous respect for justice.”
-Washington Post Book World
Taming the Storm is everything a good biography should be.
Even though political opposition kept him off the Supreme Court, perhaps no jurist leaves a larger imprint on twentieth century America than Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.
He operated in the crucible of the civil rights movement, beginning with his appointment as the nation's youngest federal judge days before his 37th birthday in 1955 by President Dwight Eisenhower. In his 24 years as a District Court judge in Montgomery, Ala., Johnson stoically endured death threats, cross burnings, bombing of his mother's home in the belief it was his, and social ostracism. For 15 years, federal marshals provided him round-the-clock protection.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said Johnson "gave true meaning to the word 'justice'." After the "bloody Sunday" first march from Selma in 1965, halted by Alabama lawmen wielding tear gas, clubs and whips, Johnson viewed the television footage as evidence in his courtroom. Four days of hearings recorded widespread abuse against blacks attempting to register to vote. His order authorizing a march that would block portions of a major highway, Johnson said, reached the "outer limits of what is constitutionally allowed."
Johnson's ruling in that case provided a prime example of how he crafted new and innovative judicial relief for complex and unprecedented constitutional issues involved in civil rights cases. It also reflected his guiding principle "to see that justice is done within the framework of the law."
His Selma order extended to constitutional wrongs the principle of proportionality used in civil and criminal law--the greater the wrong, the greater the penalty. "It seems basic to our constitutional principles that the extent of the right to assemble, demonstrate and march peaceably along the highways and streets in an orderly manner should be commensurate with the enormity of the wrongs that are being protested and petitioned against," Johnson asserted. "In this case, the wrongs are enormous. The extent of the right to demonstrate against these wrongs should be determined accordingly."
Before issuing the order, he insisted on assurances from President Lyndon Johnson himself that the federal government would enforce it. The president knew the stakes and agreed.
"The president was worried about potential violence," remembered Bill Moyers, then a White House aide. "Lyndon Johnson knew it was a breakthrough point either way, so there was a dramatic apprehension and anticipation. We knew it could make or break the Voting Rights Act."
Two key provisions of that legislation, which transformed Southern politics, were based on the "freezing doctrine" Johnson developed in a voting rights case. After noting that Alabama officials routinely ignored state literacy requirements to register whites, but zealously enforced them against blacks, he ordered that the least restrictive qualifications for whites serve as the standard for blacks.
For covered jurisdictions the Voting Rights Act eliminated literacy tests and imposed a "preclearance" feature requiring Department of Justice approval of any changes in voting laws.
The president once said that he would not have to be president if his name was Frank Johnson. "What he was saying," Moyers explained, "was that Judge Frank Johnson had been able, by a series of decisions, to bring the moral force and the legal force of the U. S. government behind the kind of changes that we were trying to bring about in Washington. It was a recognition of Johnson's ability to accomplish justice through the courts in a less tortuous path than through Congress."
In Lee v. Macon County, Johnson ordered statewide school desegregation after Gov. Wallace mounted defiant opposition. Yale Law Professor Owen Fiss saw in Johnson's management of that complex case "something as ingenious, as path-breaking, an innovative as something like Marbury v. Madison" [and its creation of judicial review].
Johnson pioneered in developing the structural injunction as a device by which a judge could retain flexible control in remedying constitutional deficiencies in the operation of institutions such as schools and prisons and to eliminate the effects of past discrimination. He fashioned relief that transformed the law in school desegregation, voting rights, jury selection, First Amendment issues, gender discrimination and treatment of mental patients and prison inmates.
Although he recognized matters before him as societal issues, in his courtroom he always viewed them as legal issues. In a time of social upheaval, his rulings made the rule of law prevail. The New York Times recognized his stature with a full page obituary.
Judge Frank Johnson's lodestar was a typed quotation he kept under a glass paperweight on his desk. It quoted Abraham Lincoln: "If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything."
As governor of Alabama, Johnson's former friend and law school classmate George Wallace once said he needed "a barbed wire enema." In the end, however, Wallace told me he was "wrong" on the issue of racial segregation and Johnson was "right."
-Jack Bass, The American Lawyer