Retiring judge vindicates father’s name, slandered by 1960s segregationists

Published 1:22 pm Sunday, January 13, 2019

NATCHEZ — For his last official act in office, retiring Sixth District Circuit Judge Forrest A. Johnson Jr. chose to right a wrong that hits close to home.

On Dec. 28, Johnson struck a paragraph from an April 22, 1966, Adams County Grand Jury Report.

The paragraph Johnson struck from the official minutes involves the Miss-Lou Observer, a weekly newspaper published in 1965 and 1966 by the retired judge’s father, Forrest A. Johnson Sr., a lawyer, along with W.W. Winkler, a retired Army officer in Natchez.

“He got into it with the Klan and challenged them,” Johnson Jr. said of his father’s newspaper. “He is in the Sovereignty Commission files up in Jackson that they opened up a number of years ago. We got a lot of death threats and things like that.”

The paragraph of the minutes struck by Johnson Jr.’s order is on page 223 of Minutes Book ‘S’ of the 1966 grand jury empanelled by James A. Torry, Circuit Judge; L.L. Forman, District Attorney; and J. Odell Anders Sheriff; and signed by grand jury Foreman, Walter W. Heard Jr.

The paragraph reads:

“An investigation was made of the newspaper known as the Miss-Lou Observer, and this Grand Jury finds this newspaper to be a scandalous ‘yellow sheet’ which publishes statements based on hearsay, rumor and gossip as admitted by one of its officers, the Grand Jury finding that statements published in this newspaper are not substantiated by fact. The paper has done and is doing a disservice to the people of Adams County and its reporting practices are deplored by this Body.”

Johnson said that portion of the Grand Jury minutes was subsequently published in The Natchez Democrat.

Johnson Jr. said he knows how grand juries work, and he does not believe the members would have put such a statement in the official minutes without prompting from officials at the time.

“They had zero business printing something like that in a grand jury report, so it was just wrong from the whole get-go about that,” Johnson Jr. said. “I got to thinking about it the last week when I was cleaning out my office and everything and I said, ‘You know, I going to do something about this.’ It was my last little parting shot for the things that were done to him back in the ’60s. It was just wrong.”

In his order, Johnson Jr. writes that the Miss-Lou Observer, “chose to report on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which were not reported on by the local daily newspaper, The Natchez Democrat, or statewide newspapers such as the Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News.”

Johnson Jr.’s order states that on March 31, 1965, on the front page of the Miss-Lou Observer, Johnson Sr. published an open letter to the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

“It included that it was ‘directed at the cowards who placed hoods over their faces and killed, bombed, beat, intimidated, and distributed libelous filth under the cover of darkness,’” Johnson Jr.’s order states. “The letter ended with ‘Meanwhile we have no apologies to offer either the Grand Dragon or the Klan, neither do we have any apologies for anyone else whether they be Purple Lizards, Pink Elephants, Long Haired Billy Goats, or yellow Bellied Snakes.’ Below the front page letter he signed his name and address.”

Johnson Jr. said the open letter resulted in death threats and intimidation of advertisers in the Miss-Lou Observer.

“The KKK did not appreciate the coverage,” Johnson Jr. writes, “and ‘Forrest Johnson’s Miss-Lou Observer’ found its way into files of the infamous Mississippi Sovereignty Commission (a state government-sanctioned committee organized to spy on civil rights workers), including ‘Johnson’ (Sr.) being one of the most treacherous white men we have ever come across.”

The Miss-Lou Observer never won any journalism awards from the Mississippi Press Association or anyone else, Johnson Jr. wrote in his final order.

However, the Miss-Lou Observer was recognized for its efforts to report on the actions of the KKK by Drew Pearson a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Merry-Go-Round, who called the editors of the Miss-Lou Observer courageous in a November 1965 column.

“Drew Pearson reported,” Johnson Jr.’s order states, “that ‘the KKK has wrecked not only this county weekly newspaper but also the law practice of Mr. Johnson, an established attorney of some 16 years in Natchez. … The Miss-Lou Observer has been taken from a weekly printing of 24 pages with advertising revenue of more than $1,200 to a paper of four pages and revenue of less than $15. … I am a red neck born in Mississippi, Johnson told me. But people whom I have known for 20 years don’t speak to me on the street anymore. It kind of makes you nervous. … so runs the story of both terror and courage in Mississippi.’”

In signing the order, the retiring judge wrote: “The undersigned is also cognizant of an obvious conflict of interest with this last official act in office, but it pales in comparison to the conflicts of interest, known and unknown that resulted in the improper Grand Jury report in question finding its way into the official minutes of this Court.”

Johnson Jr. said he was just trying to right a wrong.

“I was just trying to correct a wrong that was done to my father,” Johnson Jr. said of the order. “And it is probably improper for me to do that as a family member, but I was just going to do it, and I did.”