Carla Carlisle on a man who changed history

The word ‘lawyer’ has always sounded beautiful to me. Even ‘small-town lawyer’ has a musical rhythm that hums with sophistication, knowledge, humanity and humour. It also means seersucker in summer and deep-blue pinstripe in winter, an office in the courthouse, the gleam of brass spit-
toons, ceiling fans, the smell of cigars and leather-bound books behind glass doors.

Long before I read To Kill a Mockingbird and got to know Atticus Finch, I knew that world where the word ‘law’ had the same resonance as ‘God’. Like Atticus, my grandfather Alvah Cooper was a lawyer and a member of the State Legislature. For 40 years, he was the County Prosecuting Attorney. He must have stuck out a mile-a prosecutor who opposed capital punishment because he maintained it made all men less civilised. He was unable to abolish it, but he stopped public hanging at the Scott County Court House because he believed that even murderers deserved some dignity in death.

The festivities around the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird set me thinking about that glassy, hot world. I feel more proprietorial about that book than most because it’s set in the 1930s in a small Alabama town called Maycomb and I grew up in a small Mississippi town called McComb. A few things separated the 1930s from the 1950s. Most of the white men and some of the ‘colored’ men had fought in the Second World War, so they’d had their horizons stretched. Dirt roads were being paved and supermarket chains such as Piggly Wiggly and A&P were appearing on the sides of courthouse squares.

In 1954, when I was the same age as Scout, a case called Brown v Board of Education of Topeka appeared before the Supreme Court. Overnight, segregation in public schools was declared unequal and thus unconstitutional. Southern whites went crazy. A year later, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, triggering a bus boycott by Negro riders.

Nobody minds that Atticus actually lost the case. But fiction shouldn’t eclipse the true story of another Southern lawyer whom Harper Lee would have known. In 1955, a young lawyer from the hills of north-west Alabama was chosen to sit as a federal District Court judge in Montgomery. Standing 6ft 3in with a handsome, craggy face, at 37, Frank M. Johnson Jr was the youngest federal judge in the country. The quietly determined lawyer began his judicial career by casting the decisive vote that declared segregated public transport unconstitutional, thus ending the bus boycott that had lasted for 381 days.

It seems like old history now, but the same year (1961) that Miss Lee won the Pulitzer prize for her novel depicting white bigotry and black injustice set in the 1930s, Judge Johnson was ruling that blacks registering to vote in 1960 would fill in the same forms as whites and that the bus stations had to get rid of their ‘white’ and ‘colored’ waiting rooms and water fountains. A few years later, he would order Governor George Wallace, a law-school classmate, to permit the Selma to Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King to take place. Wallace would call him ‘an integrating scallawagging, race-mixing liar’. King called Johnson ‘the man who gave true meaning to the word justice’.

Judge Johnson paid a high price for his vision. Death threats by the Ku Klux Klan. Ostracised from his community. His mother’s house bombed in the belief that it was his. But he never waivered in his belief that, in the eyes of the Constitution, all men are created equal. He carved out the legal frontiers that changed the South and thereby changed America. His is the story of a man as wise and good as Miss Lee’s Atticus. Sometimes, truth is more remarkable than fiction.