Columns » Ernest Dumas

Justice Jim's timing



It was Jim Johnson's misfortune, and many would say the state's blessing, that his life was confounded by bad timing. He exploited racial prejudices a little before people were ready, and then the next thing he knew he was an anachronism.
Johnson lived 50 years with that knowledge, until he took his life last Friday night to end the indignity and pain of a slow death. He ran for public office nine times, winning three and failing on all the big ones, twice for governor, once each for attorney general and United States senator and twice for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Orval E. Faubus beat him in 1956 and then a year later merrily took Johnson's issue and danced with it to four more terms as governor and international renown.

It was a particularly bitter pill for Johnson because he knew that Faubus never really believed in apartheid and he did, or at least he never publicly capitulated to the judgment of history, as Faubus, George C. Wallace and so many others did, even his idol, Strom Thurmond. Thurmond began hiring African-Americans for his Senate staff and after his death in 2003 it was revealed that he had spawned a child by a black girlfriend — in Johnson's eyes the most sinful thing a white man could possibly do.

“I am opposed to rape and murder and would speak out against them,” he had once declared, “and the greatest crime, even beyond these, is integration.”

His only dalliance with the changing mores was to moderate his language and sublimate the race issue in his last few races for office, but he never changed his mind. Three years ago, he said he had never allowed a black person in Whitehaven, his Lake Beaverfork home, at least for social purposes.

I heard Jim Johnson the first time in August 1954. My brother and I went into town on an occasional weekend to see the El Dorado Oilers play baseball. The Cotton States League was embroiled in racial controversy and this was the Oilers' and the league's penultimate season. The Hot Springs Bathers had signed a black pitcher from Florida named Jim “Schoolboy” Tugerson and the rest of the league, including the owner of my beloved Oilers, had revolted and kicked Hot Springs out of the league until they thought they had a commitment from the Bathers not to play a black man. When Jim Tugerson went to the mound after all against the Jackson Senators, the umpire forfeited the game to Jackson before Tugerson could deliver a pitch. Tugerson went to Knoxville, Tenn., and won 33 games that season.

The U. S. Supreme Court had declared school segregation unlawful and Johnson, a lean, taut state senator from across the Ouachita River at Crossett, was running for attorney general and braying against the decision. At the seventh-inning stretch, as I recall, Johnson was introduced to the crowd as a neighbor who fights for our values, and he and his wife, Virginia, stood at home plate and sang “On Mockin' Bird Hill,” the feel-good song popularized by Patti Page and Mary Ford. I don't remember what, if anything, Johnson said. I went to see Pel Austin hit home runs.

Johnson ran for governor two years later after gathering signatures to get an amendment on the ballot requiring state officials to use all means to prevent the school decision from being carried out in Arkansas. Faubus sounded racist enough for most voters in the summer of 1956 and beat Johnson and a gaggle of others handily. The amendment passed in November, and the next year Faubus called out the National Guard to stop integration at Central High School after beseeching Johnson's help to stir up a mob outside the school to give him a legal figleaf for defying federal court orders. When Faubus retired in 1966 and Johnson ran again, most people had moved on.

Johnson was bemused by the voters' fickleness — they would almost ratify his interposition amendment again in 1990 and in 2008 they would repudiate a black man running for president by the second biggest margin any Democrat ever suffered in Arkansas, but after 1966 they never came close to electing him to anything. He knew he had rare political gifts, too. Though he was not an orator, like Jeff Davis and Huey Long he had a penchant for clever invective. He came up with fetching descriptions of his opponents like “prissy sissy” (Winthrop Rockefeller), “pleasant vegetable” (Justice Frank Holt) and “mess of trash” (David Pryor).

But Johnson had this on his old antagonist. Faubus tormented himself over what he did and tried every way that he could besides public repentance to soften history's scorn. He even let it be known that he did it not from conviction but for political survival and that he had actually advanced equality. If Jim Johnson had any regrets or had an hour of troubled sleep about history's verdict he never evinced it.

Others, he thought, should bear some blame for that judgment. I was one. When Johnson was running for governor in 1966 a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette asked him why he crossed the street to avoid shaking hands with black people. “I am not campaigning in the colored community,” he said. I and others would recite his refusal to shake hands many times in the years afterward and he said it conveyed to people that he thought he was too good to even touch the palm of a black man when all he meant was that they were not going to vote for him so why bother? He said it ruined him politically.

On the Supreme Court he was capable of extending his populist sympathies for the working people to blacks. It wasn't so much that he didn't think African Americans or other races didn't have rights; associating closely with white people just wasn't one of them. It was a quaint distinction, but if you are looking for principle. . .

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