On a bright day in November, retired Judge Clifton E. Johnson enters the building of the North Carolina Central University Law School. For the first time in many years, he enters without the trappings of the judiciary. This time, he enters sans the black judicial robe, in a spectacular suit, with that same swagger of confidence and determination that those who know him recognize as uniquely his.
The word gets around quickly: Judge Johnson (not Elvis) is in the building. Before he can negotiate the short path to the conference room of the law school, where he is to meet me for this interview, Judge Johnson must make numerous stops to speak to all of the folk he has come to know over the years. These stops indelibly include a stop by the Deans’ Office to do two things. First, to inquire of the Dean how the law school is progressing, and second, to tell the charming and gentle lady who has been secretary to the deans of the law school for more than twenty years, Mrs. Iris Gilchrist, a joke or two. And if there is a young student who looks like he or she needs an encouraging word, Judge Johnson does not hesitate to stop and give a word of encouragement. You see, Judge Johnson knows, first hand, what it means to lose self-confidence.
When Judge Johnson came from the small Martin County town of Williamston, North Carolina to the hustle and bustle of NCCU (then North Carolina College) at Durham, he lost confidence in his abilities. Haunted by fears of failure and embarrassing his family and himself, Judge Johnson withdrew from college. He called his mother, told her that he had withdrawn from school and asked her to have someone come and pick him up. His mother told him to take the bus home. So, he sold some of his meager belongings to other students to get the bus fare home, said good-bye to his roommate and friends, and returned to Williamston, but not for long.
Upon arriving in Williamston via bus, he called home again and asked his mother to have someone pick him up at the bus station. She told him to take a cab. Judge Johnson caught a cab, and to his surprise, the cab driver even knew that he had quit school. When he arrived home, he was greeted by several friends, relatives and teachers who were waiting to counsel the apprehensive Clifton Johnson. After listening to the advice and kind ministrations of those persons, Judge Johnson soon decided that he would return to college. However, when he called NCCU to seek re-admission, he was told that he could return, but that he would have to secure off-campus housing. His room space in Chidley Hall, the only dormitory for male students, had been given to another student. There was no available room left in the dorm, or anywhere else on campus.
Although he was willing to return to NCCU, things looked bleak because his family did not have financial resources to pay for off-campus housing. Two of the teachers who greeted him upon his arrival home, Mr. Leroy Mizell and Mr. Richard Broadnax, were graduates of North Carolina A&T State University at Greensboro. They offered to assist Judge Johnson in getting into A&T, if he would consider going there. His mother, knowing that Clifton desired to attend law school and that NCCU had a law school, thanked them, but insisted that her son would return to Durham to attend college. Mrs. Johnson then called her sister who was living in Durham, and after explaining the situation to her, asked if Clifton could live with her family while attending NCCU. Mrs. Johnson’s sister and husband, Mr. and Mrs. Lossie Mason, gladly welcomed their nephew into their home. Judge Johnson, accompanied by the same self-confidence that has accompanied him throughout a most stellar career, returned to NCCU within two weeks of his earlier departure.
Judge Johnson, or Clift as some know him, is one of NCCU’s most distinguished alumni. Judge Johnson enjoyed a phenomenal career, entailing many firsts. After earning his undergraduate degree in 1965, Judge Johnson obtained his law degree in 1967. Thereafter, he went on to work as an associate attorney, first with Durham Attorney C.C. “Buddy” Malone, Jr., and then with the Durham law firm of Pearson, Malone, Johnson and DeJarmon until the end of December 1968. But it was not long before, recognizing the strong spirit of a pioneer, Judge Johnson was tapped in January, 1969 to be the first African-American Assistant State Prosecutor for North Carolina since the 19th century (on January 1, 1969, he was hired as an Assistant State Prosecutor in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina). Within six months, Judge Johnson would be appointed to be a District Court Judge of Mecklenburg County by Governor Bob Scott. In 1974, Judge Johnson became North Carolina’s first African-American Chief District Court Judge. In 1977, he would become North Carolina’s first African-American Resident Superior Court Judge. Finally, in 1982, Governor Jim Hunt appointed Judge Johnson to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, where he was elected, re-elected and served until his retirement as Senior Associate Judge in December of 1996. While on the appellate court, he served as the state’s first African-American Chairman of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission. Being one who forged many new paths, Judge Johnson, this quintessential man, has been ever-conscious of the need to continue to bridge the divide between the races.
To Judge Johnson, diversity is a strength and not a weakness, an asset and not a liability. He believes diversity is a necessary tool that helps to bridge the divide between the races. With these beliefs in mind, he has always made a concerted effort to advance diversity with respect to race and gender. He is a strong advocate in the principle, philosophy and law which holds that qualification and ability should be the primary factors of consideration in hiring, and that qualification and ability should not be substituted or compromised by race or gender. However, once the issue of qualification and ability is met, and where diversity is warranted, he believes it is then lawful, proper and appropriate to consider race or gender as a secondary factor.
In 1974, when Judge Johnson became the state’s first African-American Chief District Court Judge, there were no African-American court reporters within North Carolina’s vast court system, nor had there ever been any. After interviewing applicants for a vacant court reporter’s position, and determining that applicants met all the requisite qualifications and had the ability to do the job, Judge Johnson then determined that, under the existing circumstances, diversity was warranted. Without substituting or compromising qualification and ability with race or gender, Judge Johnson, considering the need for diversity, hired the state’s first African-American court reporter, Mrs. Josephine Coley. In 1982, when he was appointed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, Judge Johnson discovered that there were no African-American Executive Assistants on either of the states appellate courts. Again, without substituting or compromising qualification and ability with race or gender, and seeing the need for diversity, Judge Johnson hired an African-American Executive Assistant.
Judge Johnson is the type of person who leads by example. He is not in the habit of asking or encouraging others to do that which he himself would not do. Therefore, Judge Johnson, through the years, without substituting or compromising qualification and ability with race or gender, did not hesitate to integrate his staff of clerks. He would also encourage other justices and judges to consider the benefits of such diversity (the diversity in Judge Johnson’s hiring practices was very evident by the wonderful diverse group of former law clerks who returned to help honor him at a retirement dinner/roast held in March 1997).
There were two other notable facts regarding Judge Johnson’s hiring practices. First, at least one of his law clerks was always a graduate of NCCU School of Law. And second, he would not hire anyone who was not a registered and participating voter. He was not concerned with, nor did he inquire as to an applicant’s party affiliation. However, during an interview, he would first ask an applicant if he or she was a registered voter, and then ask if he or she was a participating voter. If the applicant answered “No” to either of the questions, the applicant was not considered further for employment. If the applicant answered “Yes” to both questions, Judge Johnson would then ask the applicant where he or she was registered. He would then inform the applicant that he would have his Executive Assistant call the Board of Elections, not to inquire about the applicant’s party affiliation, but to verify that the applicant was, in fact, a registered and participating voter.
To this very day, Judge Johnson encourages and expects each young person of his acquaintance to be or to become a registered and participating voter. He recognizes the right to vote as a hard - fought right. In fact, one of the rules of his household was that each of his children, upon turning eighteen, had to become a registered and participating voter. Judge Johnson realizes that we are all a product of our past, and rejoices in his humble beginnings.
Clifton Johnson was born December 9, 1941, to Mr. Charlie Mack and Mrs. Willie Ann Johnson, in Williamston, North Carolina. He was the fourth of nine children. His mother was a domestic and factory worker and his father was a custodian at the U.S. Post Office. For a brief time, his father was also Williamston’s first African-American police officer. His father quit the police force after being “called on the carpet” for having arrested a young white fellow of a prominent family. You see, however, Mr. Charlie Johnson quit the force because he could not countenance the hypocrisy of the job. He had previously arrested one of his own children, and felt that if he could arrest one of his own children, he could arrest anyone regardless of race, or socio-economic status. This incident and the death of Joe Cross, a North Carolina A&T University student rumored to be dating a white lady, inspired an impressionable Clifton Johnson to become an attorney.
Joe Cross was killed by Martin County law enforcement officers in 1957, while en route to pick up his date, who happened to be an African-American young lady. Clifton Johnson was just fourteen when Cross was killed and at Cross’ home when NAACP attorneys arrived to discuss the matter with Mr. Jessie Rogers, Cross’ uncle, with whom Cross had been living. No one was ever convicted of Cross’ murder, but some good did result in this tragedy. The young Johnson was so impressed with the NAACP attorneys, that he decided he wanted to be an attorney. Boy, does he know how to follow through with a decision!
Judge Johnson served an adoring public for twenty-five years before returning to the bosom of his family. Judge Johnson married his high school sweetheart, Brenda Joyce Wilson, more than thirty-four years ago. This union was blessed with two biological and two adopted children. Yulonda, Clifton II, Khiva and Clinton. Yulonda, Clifton II and Khiva are all graduates of NCCU. Judge Johnson is the proud grandfather of nine grandchildren. To one who loves his family so much, retirement has been a bittersweet experience. Sadly, Brenda, who suffered a stroke in 1984, and was unable to actively join Judge Johnson in his retirement and passed away last year.
For those who are aware of the hard work, perseverance, honor, courage, and integrity of this great man, one only need look as far as the minions that he has nurtured and influenced not just his children and grandchildren, but all of those who he has touched during his lifetime. This is all a part of his legacy.
On March 15, 1997, there were few dry eyes during his Retirement Dinner Roast, what was to be an evening to celebrate and pay tribute to this monolith of the judiciary. But in typical Clifton Johnson style, he would not let an opportunity pass to honor and support his Alma Mater. On that evening, while more than 500 friends and associates gathered to honor this great man, Judge Johnson ensured that there would be an opportunity to support aspiring young lawyers at NCCU. Proceeds from the dinner would be used to create an endowed scholarship in his name.
Many who know him, know that this man is one of the most selfless human beings who has ever walked this earth. He is constantly giving, but he will tell you that in giving, he receives far more than any man can measure--the love, the respect, the unfettered adulation of all who meet him. Whether it was his great wit, wicked sense of humor, or indelible determination to make a difference, the love and affection of many were apparent on that March evening at the Sheraton.
It is unsurprising that as a man of many firsts, Judge Johnson has but two goals he wishes to accomplish before he closes the final chapter in his life’s book. One of these goals is to shoot a round of par golf. The other goal is to pilot an airplane. These goals somehow do not seem strange. Many, who have met and know this gentleman, know his love for the game of golf and his desire to excel each time he “surveys real estate.” The other goal, to pilot an airplane, seems most appropriate for one who has piloted many people to success. Flight seems second nature for this mighty eagle.
Reprinted and updated by Brenda Gibson ’95, the Legal Writing Director at NCCU School of Law.