Nation - Arkansas Segregationist, former state Supreme Court justice dies 'Justice Jim' fought 1954's Brown v Board of Education

By Tom Parsons

Associated Press Writer

CONWAY, Ark. (AP) -- Jim Johnson, a self-described die-hard segregationist who twice failed in bids to be elected Arkansas governor, has died at the age of 85.

Johnson, who served on the state Supreme Court in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was widely known to veterans of Arkansas politics as "Justice Jim." The judicial title appeared on the ballot with his name when Johnson was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1966, losing to Republican Winthrop Rockefeller.

Lt. Matt Rice of the Faulkner County sheriff's office said Johnson was found at about 10 a.m. Saturday at his home off Beaverfork Lake with an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, according to the Log Cabin Democrat newspaper at Conway. Rice said a rifle was found, and authorities have no reason to suspect foul play.

Paula Strack, a spokeswoman for Roller-McNutt Funeral Home at Conway, confirmed Johnson's death and said funeral arrangements would be announced later.

Rice said Johnson reportedly had ongoing medical problems.

His wife, Virginia Johnson, died in 2007. She was his partner in politics as well, also losing a bid to be elected governor in 1968.

Jim Johnson was born Aug. 20, 1924, in Ashley County in the state's southeast corner.

After getting his law degree and opening a practice in Crossett, he was elected to the state Senate in 1950. He sought the Democratic Party's nomination for governor in 1956, but was beaten in the party primary by the incumbent, Orval E. Faubus. A year later, Johnson found himself helping Faubus muster opposition to the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.

"He had talked to me on the phone and urged me to get our (anti-integration) friends to be present," Johnson said in a 2007 interview. "I got the message."

Johnson said he didn't hesitate to assist Faubus in generating public sentiment against the desegregation of the schools. After the telephone conversation, Johnson said, "I notified my friends and asked them to attend" events outside Little Rock Central.

"It was in preparation for an excuse for him to take the drastic action he did," Johnson said. "He needed an excuse."

With mobs gathering outside the school, Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to bar nine black youngsters from entering Little Rock Central. Eventually, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to enforce what had become the law of the land after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision struck down separate school systems for whites and blacks as unconstitutional.

Johnson was elected to the state Supreme Court in 1958.

After Faubus chose not to seek a 7th term and bowed out of the 1966 gubernatorial race, Johnson entered the field and gained the Democratic nomination with a runoff victory over former attorney general and state Supreme Court justice Frank Holt. In the general election, Johnson was soundly beaten by Rockefeller -- 54 percent to 46 percent -- who campaigned as a racial progressive.

Two years later, when his wife ran for governor, Johnson campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate seat then held by J. William Fulbright. In the party primary, Johnson finished a distant second to Fulbright, who won the nomination without a runoff and went on to an easy victory in the general election.

Johnson always based his anti-integration arguments on constitutional grounds. He argued, for instance, that the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln that freed slaves in Confederate-controlled areas of the nation during the Civil War was an unconstitutional taking of property without compensation.

In the 1950s, he fought school integration as a usurpation of states' rights by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The name that Johnson applied to his home north of Conway -- Whitehaven -- is not without significance.

"I don't feel comfortable mixing the races," Johnson said in the 2007 interview at his home. "I've never entertained a black person in my home."

Published: Tue, Feb 16, 2010