Monday, June 25, 2007

Civil rights histories, soon to fade away

Even his wife was afraid to be with him. "Those were no easy days," Johnnie Johns said of the early 1960s. He had been practicing law in Baton Rouge for seven years before the students called him. They wanted him to be their lawyer, but they wouldn’t tell him why. It was only later, when he was in the D.A.’s office to negotiate a plea bargain, that Johns would discover that he was counsel to students in the first deep South sit-in during the year of the sit-ins, 1960.

"They’re sett’in!" a voice called through the hallways.
"Who’s sett’in?"
"The Ni---rs! The Ni---rs are sett’in!"

The D.A. had no time for the plea bargain and quickly dropped all charges against Johns’ client. Johns headed straight for the jail. The students, who had sat quietly at white restaurant counters, were arrested and detained for "disturbing the peace." Thousands of students would sit-in that year, but it was these students who would find themselves the parties to a Supreme Court case, Garner v. Louisiana, that would help protect the rights of the others.

It was hard for Mr. Johns to talk about those times, he told me. It had always been hard and dangerous – an African American lawyer in Louisiana who took civil rights cases from the beginning of his practice. But now it was worse. The threatening phone calls, the cars that blocked yours on the railroad tracks when the train was coming, the attempts to force you off the road and make it look like an accident. Thurgood Marshall and the other Northern lawyers faced threats as well. But then they went home. Johns lived it every day. "When you walk out your office, you meet them."

The sit-in movement involved civil rights lawyers in a new phase of the movement. It was not just that their old legal strategies did not fit. The lawyers felt a paternalistic desire to protect the students from harsh treatment, sexual abuse and other hazards in Southern jails. To this day one student, Kenneth Johnson, told me, he has been unable to forget a scene he witnessed in the few hours it took Johns to raise their extraordinarily high bail. A legal brain trust worked to craft novel legal arguments, and front-line lawyers worked with local communities to raise bail funds to get the students out of jail.

Johnnie Johns, 87 years old and still practicing law in Baton Rouge, has many stories to tell about these hard times. He has been told he should write a memoir, but he has cases to handle. He doesn’t have time. Mr. Johns is one of a generation of lawyers who played a role in a civil rights revolution. The students, of course, have their own stories to tell. There is much that legal historians can learn from all these witnesses to history. For the generation of civil rights lawyers, they are just enough older than the students that their numbers are dwindling. There are books, dissertations and essays to be written from these sources. It is not hard for an enterprising researcher to find lawyers like Johnnie Johns, still practicing in the South, and to find the students who sat-in in Baton Rouge and elsewhere. All they need are the right historians to notice them in time.
This account is based on oral history interviews by Mary Dudziak with Johnnie Johns and Kenneth Johnson, June 2007.

Photo credit: Some of the Southern University students who participated in the Baton Rouge sit-ins.