Leader Blues

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

TOP STORY >> Justice Jim fought tough final battle

Leader executive editor

Arkansas bloggers were the first with the news of Justice Jim Johnsonís suicide over the weekend. The local TV news on Sunday ignored his passing, probably because no one in the newsroom knew who he was.

Johnson, who fought against integration at Central High School in Little Rock and elsewhere around the state, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound early Saturday morning in his rural Conway home at the age of 85. Heíd been in poor health and had been deteriorating since his wifeís death several years ago.

I knew him well enough to get his old ties in the mail around Christmas, but I didnít receive one last December, and I realized he was not well.

He really was a man of the 1950s, although he kept making mischief for most of his life. He was smart, shrewd, articulate and all that, but a bit over the top: His blatant bigotry was a little too embarrassing even to those who shared many of his beliefs.

In his heyday, there was a menacing air around Justice Jim, who would scream and holler and hint at potential violence if he didnít get his way. But he really wasnít much of a brawler, and in his old age, everyone thought he was courtly, someone who was born 100 years too late, and he knew it.

He was mostly forgotten. Cancer had killed his beloved wife Virginia, and then he, too had cancer. Too despondent to go on, he killed himself with his .45-caliber rifle.

His constitutional amendment opposing integration, which the voters approved and then repealed 30 years later, was a legal sham and was never enforced.

Leading the massive resistance against the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation, Justice Jim fought the ruling with all his might and high-falutiní legalisms such as ďinterpositionĒ and ďnullification,Ē which meant states could ignore court decisions they didnít like.

A half-century later, the secessionists down in Texas and elsewhere are using the same words, which must have pleased Justice Jim.

An old-style segregationist who stuck to his principles, Johnson really believed all that stuff about keeping black children out of good schools and why it was wrong to shake hands with a black person. Orval Faubus, who died in 1994, was an opportunist who would have accepted integration if his political career hadnít been on the line.

The obituaries talked about Johnsonís unabashed bigotry. He was a firebrand who modeled himself after Huey Long of Louisiana, just across the border from Johnsonís home town of Crossett in Ashley County. But Justice Jim, like Faubus, was a spent force by the time the 1960s rolled around.

Johnson hadnít won an election since 1958, when he was elected to the state Supreme Court, a job he hated because it made him stay out of politics. He ran again for governor in 1966, losing to Winthrop Rockefeller, and the result was not much better than a decade earlier, when Faubus defeated him soundly.

Faubus, who positioned himself as a moderate in 1956, when he was running for a second term, carried 67 of the stateís 75 counties and beat Johnson better than 2-1.

The Central High School integration crisis might have been avoided if Johnson hadnít sent his followers to the school and threatened violence. Faubus was so intimidated (and fearful he might lose the election next year), he sent in the National Guard to keep the Little Rock Nine out of Central.

Johnson rehearsed for the 1957 crisis two years earlier, when he thought he could stop integration in Hoxie near Jonesboro.

He stirred up the mob, as he often did, but in the end Hoxie was integrated.

Schools in Fayetteville, Van Buren and Charleston were integrated without incident ó all of them in the northern half of Arkansas, where Johnsonís brand of politics didnít travel well.

Justice Jim ran and lost for U.S. senator, attorney general and Supreme Court chief justice. He made a mark as state campaign chairman in 1968 for George Wallace, the third-party presidential candidate who carried Arkansas. That was the year Johnson lost to Sen. J. William Fulbright in the Democratic primary and Johnsonís wife lost to Rockefeller.

Itís unlikely Arkansas will ever see a ballot lineup like that again ó not to mention the Gene Williamsí country band that entertained Johnsonís supporters on the campaign trail. You had to be there.

Johnson and Faubus were important political figures for maybe a dozen years, but neither would fade away: Johnson used his newspaper, Arkansas Faith, to spread his segregationist views and kept writing letters to editors and cultivating the media, a word that didnít exist when he was still a force to be reckoned with.

Justice Jim had one more fight in him. He did not want Bill Clinton elected president and was the source for some of the most salacious allegations against him. This was 1950s no-holds-barred politics, the only kind he knew. That style of politics has made a comeback, thanks partly to Justice Jim.

During the Clinton years, Sheffield Nelson worked on the other side of the street, recruiting Jim McDougal to embarrass Clinton over Whitewater. Nelson was all business, sort of, while Johnson was all dirt.

The election of Barack Obama was another blow for Justice Jim. It was worse than integration, miscegenation and Clintonís election. Few blacks could vote or go to white schools when Johnson started out in politics, and now it all seemed hopeless. All his life he had predicted that integration would mean the end of white domination, and heíd lived long enough to see it happen.

By then he had a terminal illness, and it was all too much to bear. He had no more fight left in him and ended it all with a gunshot to his chest.