Columns » John Brummett

Justice Jim, a man of his time and place



Justice Jim Johnson, found dead over the weekend in his home north of Conway that he brazenly called Whitehaven, surely was one of the more influential figures in Arkansas history.

Two seminal events occurred because of him. More precisely, fear that he might win an election with his segregationist demagoguery steered the very course of 20th Century Arkansas political history.

He didn't actually win many elections, losing for attorney general in 1954, governor in 1956 and 1966 and U.S. senator in 1968. He nabbed only election to the state Senate and the state Supreme Court, providing the famous moniker.

But he was always there, lurking, fiery and colorful and possessed of an unsophisticated and rhythmic eloquence, not without a kind of charm, perceived as a threat to lead Arkansas to a dreaded place it might be inclined to go if he wasn't stopped.
In the most infamous case, the state went there anyway.

The conventional wisdom is that, by his nature, Orval Faubus was a liberal-leaning populist with no prejudice against black people. But that Orval, in 1957, so feared Justice Jim's candidacy against him from the segregationist right at the next gubernatorial election that he fomented the international disgrace at Little Rock Central High School.

As the plausible theory goes, Faubus decided he'd get beat by Johnson's fiery segregationist rhetoric if he simply let the federal courts have their orders enforced without his contrived resistance.

In fact, when Johnson ran unsuccessfully against Faubus in 1956, he called Faubus a “race-mixer,” after which Faubus found it advisable to vow in a speech in Marianna that no school would be forced to integrate while was governor.

In her book “Turn Away Thy Son,” Newport historian Elizabeth Jacoway titled a chapter on Johnson “Segregationist Prototype.” She wrote that Johnson grew up in a tough mill town in southern Arkansas, Crossett, as son of an independent grocer who battled the town's company store. So, she explained, he came to be an outsider and to understand his state's racial fears far better than could Faubus, coming as he did from the isolated and almost all-white hills of northern Arkansas.

Jacoway, who'd grown to like Johnson for his wit and seeming candor as she researched her book, wrote that he was a true conservative in that he embraced the three main principles of the true conservatism of his time — small government, state's rights and white supremacy. She said he never departed from any of them.

I recall as a cub reporter at the Arkansas Gazette in 1977 trying to figure out if I could refer to Johnson in an article as a segregationist. My one-generation's removal caused me to equate segregationist with racist and to fear committing libel in referring to a man as a segregationist.

I asked a crusty editor, who told me Johnson never took it back and to go ahead and say it. Even then, I think I settled on “once-avowed segregationist.” But he never really ceased that avowal. Late in life, he said he only hoped the liberal social engineers would come to understand someday that whites and blacks are different.

In the beginning I mentioned two seminal events caused by fear of Justice Jim. Beyond Faubus' disgrace at Central, what was the other?

If Dale Bumpers tells the truth, then he decided to run against J. William Fulbright for the U. S. Senate in 1974 only because polls showed that, if he didn't, then Fulbright, who was weakened by his anti-war position, would lose to Johnson.

Bumpers won, furthering a new era of left-of-center progressivism in Arkansas politics that would give rise to Bill Clinton, who would become president.

As president, Clinton would see a wild video produced about him called the “The Clinton Chronicles” that accused him of all manner of sleaze and featured prominently the distinctive intonations of Justice Jim Johnson.

Clearly, the late Justice Jim Johnson was an integral actor in the political drama of his time and place.

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