by Max Brantley
THE JOHNSONS: Justice Jim Johnson with his wife, Virginia (she's now deceased), when she made her run for governor. Photo from Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
Former Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson, known both for his segregationist political activities in the 1950s and dabbling in the political campaign against Bill Clinton during his presidency, died yesterday.
A Faulkner County sheriff's office spokesman, Lt. Matt Rice, said Johnson was found dead in his home about 10 a.m. Saturday with an apparently self-inflicted chest wound from a .30-30 rifle. Johnson had been beset by medical problems, he said. Roller-McNutt Funeral Home in Conway will be handling arrangements.
He was 85. Here's a standard biographical history. This will end his prolific and pointed letters to the editor (unless some are still in the pipeline), delivered on stationery marked with his name for his Conway home, "Whitehaven."
Justice Jim was a courtly man and lively company, gracious in social interaction with friend and political foe. But Mark Anthony's words in Julius Caesar about men's deeds come, unavoidably, to mind. As recently as 1990, the state was embroiled in a political debate of his making. That year, voters barely approved the repeal of Amendment 44, the states rights amendment he fathered to block integration. It had long been declared unconstitutional by the federal court, but it stood as a lingering symbol of the struggle against civil rights. A rump group of true believers led a fight that almost kept it in the constitution. My recollection, as I originally wrote here, was that he was a part of that effort, though he had long acknowledged the amendment's lack of legal force. A friend thinks Justice Jim had given up on the fight by then. I haven't yet been able to find a document to clear up the contradictory recollections.