Justice Jim Johnson, whose controversial career was steeped in segregationist, 1950s Southern culture, is considered the last of a breed of politician.
Johnson, who died Saturday at age 85 of an apparent a self-inflicted gunshot wound, was the last hard-core segregationist figure to run for state office in Arkansas and one of the last in the South. He described himself as a “die-hard segregationist.”
Lt. Matt Rice of the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office said Johnson was found at about 10 a.m. Saturday at his Conway home on Beaverfork Lake. Rice said a rifle was found, and authorities have no reason to suspect foul play. Rice said Johnson reportedly had ongoing medical problems.
Johnson was also known as one of the best and craftiest public speakers in Arkansas political history and an astute justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court.
“I’m sorry and shocked by the news of his death and extend sympathy to his family,” said former state Sen. Stanley Russ in a prepared statement. “With his passing, Arkansas has lost one of our most colorful political figures. His death represents the passing of an era in Arkansas political history.
“He was a brilliant speaker, jurist, scholar, historian and an astute observer of government. Jim was devoted, particularly to his soul mate, Virginia, and his family. He will be missed.”
He was also considered by friends a strong-principled person who valued loyalty.
“He was like a brother to me,” said Phil Stratton of Conway, who developed a lifelong friendship with Johnson while the two were students at Crossett High School and who managed all of his political campaigns. “It’s a terrible loss. We were close. His children called me ‘Uncle Phil.’ He was a special person. It’s hard for me to talk about it right now.”
“He was one of the most controversial figures ever in Arkansas politics, no doubt about that,” said John Ward, former managing editor of the Log Cabin Democrat.
Johnson, one of the youngest justices to ever be elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court, served on the High Court from 1959-66. During that time, he was known for supporting employee benefits in workers compensation cases.
He was known as “Justice Jim” to longtime political figures in Arkansas. In April of 1966, he received a call from the late Wiley Branton Sr., a civil rights lawyer, who stated that he had been an outstanding and “color blind” judge, a compliment in which Johnson always took great pride, according to his family.
He finished second to Orval Faubus for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1956. He ran unsuccessfully against Rockefeller for governor in 1966 and unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1968 against J. WIlliam Fulbright. His late wife, Virginia, was the first woman in Arkansas history to run for governor.
He retired in Conway and lived for several years on Justice Lane in Lakeview Acres.
He was considered one of a fraternity of powerful Southern political officials who vigorously opposed integration that included George Wallace of Alabama, Lester Maddox of Georgia and Ross Barnett of Mississippi.
In the gubernatorial race against Rockefeller, Johnson carried 40 of 75 Arkansas counties, but Rockefeller prevailed in the metropolitan areas and in eastern Arkansas, which had a high African-American population.
He and former President and former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton were longtime bitter enemies, originating from the days Clinton worked for the Fulbright campaign in the Senate race.
“You make me ashamed to be from Arkansas,” Clinton once told him.
Johnson was an outspoken critic of Clinton as governor and president, often attacking him with highly volatile and descriptive language.
He usually dressed in white suits and a hat. He and the late Guy “Mutt” Jones of Conway, a longtime friend, were known for their entertaining nature and self-depreciating humor, both to allies and political rivals, at social events. At one forum in Conway, Johnson, Jones and Conway County sheriff Marlin Hawkins discussed what they considered core political values of loyalty and being a “man of your word.”
(Reporter David McCollum contributed to this report).