Photo Credit: Bob Self – Florida Times Union
Earl M. Johnson, Jr. is a husband and father of five. He is the founder of TakeItDown.Org, the first nonprofit dedicated to the removal of all confederate monuments on Public Land in America.
Earl is the son of the late Earl M Johnson, a member of the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame, and attorney for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Earl’s mother was Jacksonville University’s first Black faculty member. A Jacksonville native, he received a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from FSU, and received his Juris Doctor Degree from Stetson University College of Law. He practiced civil rights and criminal defense law for 26 years, during which time he litigated the Rosewood, Florida massacre case on behalf of the Black descendants of the Rosewood township victims, among other notable cases. He has served on numerous Boards of Directors, including the Child Guidance Center, Hubbard House and the Clara White Mission.
Charles Clark: Mr. Johnson thank you for taking time for doing this interview.
Earl Johnson Jr: Charles, I feel great and thank you so much for having me. I am really excited to be hear.
Charles Clark: My pleasure, this first question has become my signature question, I ask this question in every interview for the last 12 years. Who is Earl Johnson Jr?
Earl Johnson Jr: He is a man who is focused really on a couple of things. Teaching, and civil rights, advocacy, mainly my ticket down is my effort to relocate confederate monuments for public land of America and on my children to, a boy and a girl, older now, young adults, 26 and 21.
Charles Clark: Wow. So, tell me about your legacy because you have a very very strong and important legacy. Your father was Earl Johnson. I don’t want to share, I want you to tell it because I won’t do it justice, how about that?
Earl Johnson Jr: Well, I mean, simply put, my father was a great civil rights attorney. He is well noted, he is a member of the Florida civil rights wall of fame. But he is mainly known for representing Martin Luther King Jr. and also very well known for representing a woman by the name of Ida Philips, a woman who brought the first civil rights act to enforce women’s rights under title 7 in the workplace. It was actually Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s favourite case I contend. She often talked about it, talked about it during her senate hearings in 93, last spoke about it that I saw in 2018. So, it was the originally, on the basis, sex case that they segregated all of the schools in Florida. Literally single handed, he desegregated public spaces, Florida bathrooms, public parks etcetera and so growing up around the dinner table, mom and dad spoke of Martin. They talked about Dr King, he and Andy Young, Williams. They were at my parents’ home in 1963 when they organized the marches into St. Augustine which was critically important to the passage of the 1964 and this actually occurred in 1964 not 63. Civil rights act and Dr King was very interested in bringing national attention to St. Augustine and presenting to the nation, the juxtaposition of the nation’s oldest city struggling with the nations oldest and St. Augustine at the time was one of the most racist segregated, white supremist communities in the nation. Much of its chair office was made up of KKK, to give an idea of what was happening there. In particular, there is a famous photograph that made it to the Minnesotan of a white manager of the Monsieur hotel pouring muriatic acid into a pool near a young black girl who is swimming in that pool in protest, in peaceful protest. Blacks were not allowed to swim in the pool, Blacks couldn’t drink from fountains, Blacks couldn’t be in public parks, and Blacks couldn’t go to the beach. It went on and on and on, so bringing attention to this community was keenly important. My dad went on to serve on the Jacksonville city council during the 60s, 70s and 80s, and was a wonderful trial attorney and that is exactly why I became a lawyer and during that time, focused on civil rights.
So, that is my upbringing. My mom was, they are both passed now. My mom, Janet, was the first black member of the Jacksonville University faculty. My mom taught for 48 years so; education was extraordinarily important in my home. My sisters both went to Harvard. My older sister is a practicing psychiatrist. My younger sister graduated with Barack Obama from Harvard law, Perry Lynn Johnson, she chose to be the director of the international climate energy agencies. Legal department if you will, their legal director. My brother is a producer, an editor in Los Angeles. So, we grew up in a home that was really focused on justice, one focused on the importance of education and so that is who I am and that is from where I come.
Charles Clark: So, how did all this influence how you navigate through life? You became a lawyer, now a teacher. You know, some people say growing up and to have that much history and legacy, sometimes I have heard in books and articles that that is a burden. How have you created an existence for yourself without it being a burden to you?
Earl Johnson Jr: I tell you Charles that is really an in-depth question because I grew up in the 80s. I am 56 years old, and some of you young folks may not remember but Martin Luther King was not a very popular person within a large swath of the white community at the time. There was a huge battle in congress to prevent his birthday from becoming a national holiday in the 80s. So, there was a lot of controversy if you will, associated with believe it or not, with my father’s work. Associated with his civil rights work and enforcing the rights of women and enforcing the rights of Black Americans and certainly focusing on poor people. So, for me, a lot of it as a child, at least through high school, was quite a turning point. It wasn’t until frankly college or law school that I began to even tell anyone that my father was MLK’s attorney. That of course did inform and direct who I was because beyond dad’s work with MLK, the broader issue of justice and the importance of engagement and civil discussion through politics, law, education, were ideals that were really driven home at home growing up. So, I naturally gravitated to civil rights work. I had the wonderful pleasure of working for Henry Lee Adams Jr. who at the time was the only black federal judge. In Florida, he was appointed by President Clinton, was actually a prodigy of my father’s, I enjoyed working for him from 95-98 in tepa and he had the landmark case of the public women’s right case. Women’s sex discrimination, public grocery stores and it was at the time, the largest sex discrimination case plus action of over 100,000 women employees. So, being engaged in that case and seeing literally hundreds of other discrimination claims, you know, not all with merit but some extraordinary, really turned my attention to that direction. So, I found myself when I was practicing doing a lot of civil rights work whether it was employment discrimination of all kinds, age, sex, race, gender, sex orientation. Becoming a real student of civil rights law has to be when I was looking for a federal judge of course and continued in that direction. Yeah.
Charles Clark: Right, so, as you look now, what are the major issues in civil rights right now?
Earl Johnson Jr: There are many and as always, there are complex, multifaceted. I have chosen one.
Charles Clark: Okay.
Earl Johnson Jr: And I think up until last year at least, a lot of folks thought it might be considered a micro aggression if you will. But I am dead set on removing, replacing confederate monuments on public land in America. Period. With all the hubbub that we have seen over the last year or so, there remains nearly 1800 monuments and the confederacy on public land. So, the Minnesotan says that we spend about $40,000,000 in tax dollars every several years. Yesterday or the day before, the Washington post came out just focused on 1 monument to the confederacy in Alabama where they spent upwards of $400,000, no it was half a million dollars annually on this and so why is this important. First and foremost, understanding the confederacy and the utter suppression of information and education about our own American history has led to this benign impression of a confederacy but it is not. Confederacy is first and foremost founded on white supremacy and on the notion that black people are inferior to white people. Let me read briefly if you let me.
Charles Clark: Sure.
Earl Johnson Jr: And I always start with this Charles, when I speak to leaders around the country, police chiefs, sheriffs, mayors, and council people about their decision to remove confederate monuments from public land. I always start with this and this is a quote from the infamous speech of Alexander Stephens, just about a month, excuse me, just a few weeks before the start of the civil war in 1863. In this speech he says, and I quote, “Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. That slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition”. So, that is when we begin with understanding that the confederacy is the embodiment of white supremacy, the embodiment of the effort to continue the enslavement of black people in America. That is what it is. Once you understand that you then must consider the $40,000,000 in taxpayer money, you must consider how and why they are located, these monuments, on public land. On courthouse steps, public parks, names of schools, tributes to schools, streets, highways, Mountain Appalachians , trails, it just goes on and on and on and it is undoubtedly a government endorsement, not of the confederacy but of white supremacy. So, in this speech, Stephens goes on to say that confederacy was the first government of its kind that was founded on white supremacy. It was true, the second of its kind was in third Reich. Hitler was a huge fan of the confederacy, just google Hitler and the confederacy and you will see what I am talking about.
Charles Clark: Let’s stop right here…