Obama made a mistake in underestimating racial demagogues like the late Jim Johnson
It’s customary to describe the death of a figure like Arkansas’ “Justice Jim” Johnson as the end of an era. Riddled with cancer, the 85-year-old segregationist killed himself with a deer rifle at the Conway home he called “Whitehaven” — the name his way of telling critics of his racial views, he once told an interviewer, that they could “kiss my ass.”
People who have underestimated the legacy of Justice Jim and like-minded rabble-rousers, as the Obama administration appears to have done, however, could end up paying a terrible price.
The one-time state Supreme Court judge was basically the George Wallace of Arkansas: a die-hard segregationist demagogue with a far less successful political career than his Alabama soulmate. Having lost two races for Arkansas governor, Johnson’s last hurrah as a candidate came when he was defeated by Sen. J. William Fulbright in a 1968 U.S. Senate primary.
Justice Jim’s wife, Virginia, lost a gubernatorial primary that year, setting up the most seemingly paradoxical general election result in Arkansas’ quirky political history. In November 1968, Arkansas gave its presidential vote to George Wallace in a close three-way contest, reelected anti-Vietnam War Democrat Sen. Fulbright and made moderate Republican Winthrop Rockefeller its governor.
Since then, nobody espousing anything like Justice Jim’s views — he sometimes refused to shake black voters’ hands, railed against “mongrelization” and was once endorsed by the KKK — has stood any chance in an Arkansas election. In that sense, he died an embittered anachronism, a throwback to “massive resistance,” White Citizen’s Councils, “colored” drinking fountains, billboards along Southern highways depicting “Martin Luther King at a communist training school” and state police investigations of “race-mixers” and other subversives.
Unlike Wallace, Johnson never apologized. As recently as 1996, he told an interviewer, “I have to admit that I have not grown to the point where I am not uncomfortable when I see a mixed couple. It causes me discomfort. But I say in the same breath that when I see a drunk it causes me discomfort.”
In a broader sense, however, Justice Jim was an innovator. His methods and tactics were as contemporary as Rush Limbaugh, NewsBusters, the Tea Party and the Fox News stylings of Glenn Beck: an insidious but heady blend of half-truth, disinformation, conspiracy-mongering and appeals to ignorance.
But because the primary target of Johnson’s ire was President Bill Clinton, many in the so-called “mainstream” media and among progressive Democrats imagined that the target somehow deserved it; also that the kinds of coarse smears used against Clinton couldn’t possibly harm so august and transcendent a figure as President Obama. Now they’re struggling to catch up.
Reading accounts of Tea Party patriots oiling their guns for the coming counter-revolution can’t help but remind Southerners of the 1950s and early 1960s, when demagogues like Justice Jim stoked fears of federal tyranny. Years later, he claimed to have hoaxed Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus into calling out the National Guard, supposedly to control white mobs determined to prevent the 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High — the shameful event seared into the memory of every Arkansan of Bill Clinton’s generation.
“There wasn’t any caravan,” he told Faubus biographer Roy Reed. “But we made Orval believe it. We said. ‘They’re lining up. They’re coming in droves.’ … The only weapon we had was to leave the impression that the sky was going to fall.” Somewhat later, Johnson said Faubus asked him to raise a mob to justify his actions. As neither man could be believed, there’s just no telling.
Justice Jim’s hatred for Clinton dated to that 1968 campaign, when the future president served as Sen. Fulbright’s driver. Confronting Johnson after a speech, the recent Georgetown graduate blurted, “You make me ashamed to be from Arkansas.”
Well, he made a lot of people feel that way. Years later, however, Johnson got him back, telling a conservative Washington gathering that he was ashamed Arkansas had produced, “a president of the United States who is a queer-mongering, whore-hopping adulterer; a baby-killing, draft-dodging, dope-tolerating, lying, two-faced, treasonous activist.”
More to the point, Johnson helped orchestrate a multimedia smear campaign: appearing in Jerry Falwell’s crackpot video “The Clinton Chronicles” depicting the president as a drug smuggler and murderer, as a paid consultant to the American Spectator’s notorious “Arkansas Project,” writing characteristically dishonest op-eds for the Washington Times and Wall Street Journal, even helping to broker convicted embezzler and Whitewater fabulator David Hale’s relationship with gullible reporters for the New York Times — his own political allegiances carefully airbrushed out of the picture.
Clinton’s sin was being a race traitor, an apostate white Southerner; Barack Obama’s that he’s the Other, the living embodiment of “mongrelization” men like Justice Jim Johnson feared and loathed. Given that history, it’s just astonishing that the Obama White House appears never to have seen the hysteria coming.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at email@example.com. More Gene Lyons.
More Related Stories
- Why Democrats abandoned LGBT immigrants
- Jodia Arias: I deserve a second chance
- Oklahoma residents return home to pick up the pieces
- On freedom of speech, Obama-Nixon comparisons are apt
- Florida man with connection to Tsarnaev killed by FBI
- Senate panel approves immigration overhaul
- FBI identifies 5 Benghazi suspects
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- I'm not achieving my dreams!
- The most popular Tumblr porn
- Slave descendants seek equal rights from Cherokee Nation
- Snapchat is secretly storing your photos
- Here come the tornado truthers. Already
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Is abortion about to doom Republicans again?
- Anti-voter-fraud Tea Party group sues the IRS
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Apple's biggest sin: Popularity
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
- Facebook's hate speech problem
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11