Southern Judges/Righteous Gentiles

April 13, 2014

Righteous among the Nations is an honorific of the State of Israel, used to recognize non-Jews whose extraordinary acts during the Holocaust saved Jewish lives. I thought about the Righteous among the Nations, known informally—and with respect—as Righteous Gentiles, as I was reflecting on the coverage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at 50.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the bill into law on July 2, 1964. I’m not sure about the reasons for celebrating the 50 year anniversary now, about three months early, but there was a major event at the LBJ Presidential Library this past week to commemorate the law and the events that led to its passage. Presidents Obama, G.W. Bush, Clinton, and Carter all spoke, and much was written about the event.

I focus not on the event, but on some people—all white men, and all judges—whose actions on behalf of the civil rights movement were extraordinary. By acknowledging these men I intend no disrespect for the millions of Negroes who suffered at the hand of an evil system. Words fail in trying to acknowledge how badly our nation treated its citizens.

But I mention these white men because, like the Righteous Gentiles, they could have passed. Their neighbors did. Their communities did. But they—and many, many others like them—did not. And because good people did not close their eyes, we are a better nation.

Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. served as a U.S. District Court Judge in Alabama from 1955 through 1979, and was a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits for the next 20 years. As a new District Court Judge he voided the bus seating law that caused Rosa Parks to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. Later, he prevented Governor George Wallace from blocking the march to Selma, a major civil rights event in 1965. Here is Judge Johnson’s obituary.

Judge Julius Waties Waring served as a U.S. District Court Judge in South Carolina from 1942 through 1952, and was a senior judge until he died in 1968. Judge Waring was born in 1880. His father was a Confederate soldier. He was appointed to the bench by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was 61. These facts all make his civil rights record even more amazing. His important rulings required equal pay for Negroes and the right to vote in party primaries. He also gave Negroes the right to attend a state law school, requiring the state to admit Negroes to the University of South Carolina, close the school, or build a separate school. (Not surprisingly, the state chose option three.)

I was not familiar with Judge Waring until Thursday. Then, I heard How the Son of a Confederate Soldier Became a Civil Rights Hero on NPR. Listen, please; it’s worth your time.

Judge John Minor Wisdom served as a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit from 1957-1977, and as a senior judge until he died in 1999 at age 93. He was a great judge for many reasons, but he was also a leader on civil rights issues. He wrote the opinion in Meredith v. Fair, the case filed by James Meredith to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. He also wrote an important school desegregation opinion in U.S. v. Jefferson County Board of Education.

Books about these great judges include:  The Judge:  The Life and Opinions of Alabama’s Frank M. Johnson, Jr. by Frank Sikora; A Passion for Justice:  J. Waties Waring and Civil Rights by Tinsley Yarbrough; Champion of Civil Rights:  Judge John Minor Wisdom by Joel William Friedman; and Unlikely Heroes by Jack Bass, which Judge Wisdom and other distinguished appellate court judges who played a major role in desegregation efforts.

Leave a Reply