NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Retired Judge Calvin Johnson can still smell the tear gas.
He was 16 years old, marching with other Black teenagers to integrate their high school in Iberville Parish, when a mob of White lawmen and civilians attacked with billy clubs, fire hoses, cattle prods and gas.
Johnson was left with a profound desire to correct injustice, which eventually helped make him a respected jurist in New Orleans. But it long gnawed on him that no one ever issued a formal apology for that night in the summer of 1963.
That changed recently.
At the front of a church full of graduating Loyola University Law School students in gowns and mortarboards, their faces beaming, Johnson received a letter from Gov. John Bel Edwards. It was a formal recognition, as Edwards put it, that “Louisiana’s authority and power were unjustly wielded as an outreached arm of hatred and a weapon of racial violence.”
Johnson, 75, had no idea the letter was coming. He embraced Law School Dean Madeleine Landrieu, daughter of the White mayor who desegregated city government. Afterward, he said he was overwhelmed.
“I have no words to describe it,” Johnson said.
The story of what happened to Johnson on and after the night in 1963 involves grave injustices and brave responses. After the White mob beat back the Black teens, Johnson was hauled into court and convicted of inciting a riot - for demanding his School Board implement the Supreme Court’s 9-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Some people might have avoided courtrooms the rest of their life. But Johnson was inspired by his lawyer, the legendary Lolis Edward Elie, and eventually found his way into the law after a circuitous path that involved a stint as a McDonald’s restaurant manager.
In 1990, Johnson was elected to a Criminal District Court judgeship, and served for 17 years. In the chaos after Hurricane Katrina, he was instrumental in restoring the judicial system.
Since his retirement, Johnson has taught classes in Loyola’s criminal law clinic and become something of a Mr. Fix-It for broken systems. He has served as executive director of the Metropolitan Human Service District, criminal justice commissioner under Mayor Mitch Landrieu and most recently interim director for National Alliance on Mental Illness’ New Orleans office.
Despite his many accomplishments, Johnson always looked back on his experience as a teenager in Plaquemine with lingering dismay. He said that when he sat as judge, he often remembered what it was like to sit at the defense table as a scared 17-year-old.
“It had a profound impact on me,” he said. “I was a child, and so that is a traumatic experience, and so the trauma of that lives with you.”
In December 2008, the month after Barack Obama was elected president, he wrote an opinion piece for the Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate newspaper reflecting on the experience.
“I want an apology,” he said. “I want someone who was present that day in Plaquemine and someone who was present at all of those violent incidents that proliferated in our state from the greater Ark-La-Tex area to the marshes of Plaquemines Parish to tell me and those similarly situated that they are sorry. It is the right thing to do.”
After that op-ed ran, Moon Landrieu, father of Madeleine and Mitch Landrieu, wrote a letter to the editor apologizing for being one of the White people who said nothing as the injustice occurred. Johnson said he also received a call from a woman who had grown up in Plaquemine at the same time as him and had no idea about what he had endured.
Madeleine Landrieu, who helped her father write his letter, kept a copy of Johnson’s op-ed on the wall of her office for years. When she became dean of Loyola, she realized she could do something about it. She received word May 11 that the apology had been granted, and she braved the traffic to and from Baton Rouge the next day to make sure its delivery wasn’t delayed by yet another day.
Johnson was present in January when Edwards made another attempt at redressing old injustices, by granting Homer Plessy a pardon.
There are some who might dismiss such gestures as empty symbolism, but not Johnson. He still has the scars from that night in Plaquemine, some of them literal.
“To make us whole, we have to talk about these things. We cannot just simply ignore what the past was, because it’s not healthy,” he said.